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S & H Festival Review

"A song outlasts a dynasty", Vaughan Williams, Williamson, Stanford, Roe, Wood, Berners, Stevenson, Runswick, Berkeley, Butterworth, Goossens, Scott, Maxwell Davies, Kit and the Widow. Susan Bickley (mezzo), Roderick Williams (baritone), James Gilchrist (tenor), Iain Burnside (piano) The Assembly Rooms, Ludlow, 6h June, 2004 (AO)

When war was threatening Europe, Finzi wrote to a friend that "a song outlasts a dynasty" expressing his belief that as long as there was music there was hope. Diane McVeagh in her talk noted that song, which requires no instruments but voice, is the most ancient form of music. Cultural artefacts may be destroyed, but culture survives through human communication. Thus song survives although individual singers pass away, when there is an oral tradition, and this can last centuries. As the remarkable rediscovery of Thomas Traherne's writing shows, what seems to be lost can someday resurface.

In some ways English song as we know it stems from a single act : Cecil Sharp's notation of a folk song sung by a gardener in 1903. Thus a generation of middle class intellectuals took on a mission to preserve as much folk song and dance as they could, assuming that the folk tradition was almost extinct. Among the keenest collectors were Vaughan Williams and Butterworth. From folk roots they created an English identity based on simplicity and direct expression, just as German composers had developed Lieder from sources such as Herder and Des Knaben Wunderhorn a century before.

Vaughan Williams's adaptation of the song Sharp collected in 1903, The Seeds of love, suited Bickley well, for it used the natural charm and prettiness of her voice. Williams sang Vaughan Williams French folk song setting, L'Amour de moy which required a firmer touch. Both songs in a sense sprang from "authentic" folk roots. In contrast , Charles Stanford, who taught most of the composers of his time, including Vaughan Williams, wrote songs based on an imagined vision of "Irish" song, although he had been upper class Anglo Irish and had left Ireland forever at eighteen. Williams sang his genuinely lyrical My love's an arbutus, bringing its keening "Irish" nostalgia to the fore. Gilchrist sang well, but nothing could really raise Malcolm Williamson's The Flowers from the level of children's song, for which it was written. With the Betty Roe songs, we returned to an "authentic" voice, relating domestic incidents with freshness and wit. In a sense, roe was writing in a "folk" tradition because she believed that art song should be accessible, singable and relate to people's lives. Her Husband and Lament were hilarious comments on domestic predicaments, vividly realised by Williams and Gilchrist. Much more contrived were the Berner's song Red noses and red roses and A perfect rose by Daryl Runswick. Bickley made them funny enough but the material did not stretch her potential. Ronald Stevenson’s deceptively simple Rose of all the world was a better vehicle. Bickley seems to have a real feel for bluesy, smooth songs like the setting of Hardy's In tenebris I, which John Dankworth wrote for his wife, Cleo Laine In this, Bickley showed her mettle. Unfortunately her next Stevenson setting was written in thick Scots dialect, very different from Bickley's normal voice. It did not convince, though the song was good. She again drew the short straw, having to sing Scott's Milkwort and bog-cotton, also in dialect far removed from her range.

Gilchrist and Williams had finer material to work with. Gilchrist whispered the "hushed silence" of Goossens A woodland dell, creating atmosphere. Williams accomplished Gurney's simple but heartfelt Severn meadows, with a passionate "Do not quite forget me, O Severn Meadows!" Butterworth's immortal Loveliest of Trees was presented with ecstatic joy, the crescendo on the lovely line "wearing white, for Eastertide".

All three singers combined in the last songs – Bickley's voice well balanced by Williams. Kit and the Widow's anti romantic Swansong tells of a swan who only sings at its death – from pollution. On an even higher plane was Peter Maxwell Davies protest against uranium mining in the Orkneys, Tourist Board Song from the Yellow Cake Review. The sardonic, rapid lines were sung with sharply focussed irony, voices alternating with precision. Folk music was not purely decorative as it expressed the concerns of ordinary people. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, oneness with nature might be expressed through love of gardens, but in more modern times, it is the threat to nature that gets composers going. Since uranium mining in the Orkneys was stopped, perhaps it does show the power of song has to galvanise people to governments and to overcome. So Finzi was right : as long as people can sing, there is hope.

Anne Ozorio

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