11.00am – Songs by Bax, Delius, Moeran and Warlock
Gareth Brynmor John (baritone); Christopher Glynn (piano)
2.30pm – Songs by Finzi, Gurney, Parry and Stanford
Roderick Williams (baritone); Michael Dussek (piano)
String Quartet music by Delius, Holst and Parry
Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield (violins), Michael Schofield (viola). Lucy Wilding (cello)]
7.30pm – Eighteenth Century music from London and Edinburgh
Ensemble Hesperi [Mary-Jannet Leith (recorders) Magdalena Loth-Hill (Baroque violin), Florence Pitt (Baroque cello), Thomas Allery (harpsichord)]
St Mary’s Church, Horsham, Sussex
Monday 31 May
Written by Richard Whitehouse
It may have operated under ongoing conditions brought about by the need of social distancing in the (hopefully) last stages of the pandemic, but this fourteenth edition of the English Music Festival was no less successful because of it. Indeed, the decision to hold most of these events at St. Mary’s Church in Horsham, following on from the notably successful Christmas season last year, saw a focus on vocal and instrumental music that brought a wealth of unfamiliar or neglected pieces into the spotlight, with an informal atmosphere transcending the restrictions.
The final day’s activities began with a recital by Gareth Brynmor John (above) and Christopher Glynn, dominated by an overview of songs by Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine) – not unreasonably so, given the variety of his response to a bewildering range of English verse. Almost all the phases and styles of his writing were featured – from such gauche but endearing songs as A Lake and A Fairy Boat, through such striking items as Mourn no more and Sweet Content, to the plethora of songs from 1922 (equivalent to Schubert’s 1815) of which The Bachelor and Sleep are just two of the most striking. Also here were several of Warlock’s ‘send-ups’ such as Mr Belloc’s Fancy and the Moeran collaboration Maltworms, whereas his stark setting of Bruce Blunt’s The Fox typifies that enveloping introspection Warlock was unable to escape.
Brynmor John was a sensitive guide to this music, Glynn no less sensitive in accompaniment. Interspersed among the Warlock were settings by composers who influenced him at various stages – hence Five Songs from the Norwegian where Delius takes the lyrical idiom of Grieg as a starting-point for his own increasingly personal expression, and four songs by Bax – not least the statement of identity that is To Eire and the wistful rumination of The White Peace – that remind one of the importance of this genre during his formative years. Most distinctive, though, were Moeran’s Seven Poems by James Joyce whose understatement, even reticence belies the keen formal subtlety or the expressive acuity brought to some frequently taciturn verse, and which were rendered with considerable insight by these finely attuned musicians.
The afternoon recital brought an equally wide-ranging programme from Roderick Williams (above) and Michael Dussek, opening with Three Poems by Robert Bridges as find Stanford’s word-setting at his most mellifluous and unaffected. Three often animated items derived from his Seventh Set of English Lyrics were a reminder that Parry made no less a contribution to the song than to the choral and chamber genres. Interspersed between these groups, Holst’s still little-known yet ingenious Phantasy on British Folk-Songs saw a trenchant response by the Bridge Quartet (below), but the Scherzo from Parry’s Third Quartet required a defter approach. The first half ended with I said to Love – last of Finzi’s song-cycles with texts by Thomas Hardy, whose eponymous final song summoned an eloquent response from Williams and Dussek.
After the interval, the Bridge Quartet returned for the slow movement – aka Late Swallows – from Delius’s solitary mature String Quartet. This made for a tranquil if by no means passive entree into the second of Gurney’s song-cycles after A. E. Housman, The Western Playland. The eight songs traverse a wide expressive range, with such as a limpid setting of Loveliest of Trees and a purposeful take on Is my Team Ploughing radically different in manner yet comparable in quality to those by Butterworth or Vaughan Williams. If the forced jollity of the initial Reveille strikes a jarring note, the final March conjures a luminous poise as is enhanced by its instrumental postlude. Having made the definitive recording (EMRCD065), Williams and Dussek conveyed this music’s often plangent emotion with unwavering resolve.
The evening recital saw a welcome return of Ensemble Hesperi (above) for an enterprising selection from the Baroque and early Classical eras, drawn from those musical centres of London and Edinburgh. Alongside trio sonatas by Purcell, Geminiani and Handel – also the latter’s Third Harpsichord Suite – came extracts from the compendious Airs for the Seasons by Fife-born James Oswald, the Second Harpsichord Suite by Londoner Abiel Whichello, a chromatically questing Solo Violin Sonata in B minor from Birmingham musician Barnabus Gunn and the rhythmically engaging Variations on a Scots Theme by the Edinburgh-born publisher Robert Bremner. All rendered with agility and resource by these excellent musicians, and a welcome ending to the festival for those staying in Horsham or able to take a late train back to London.
The Fifteenth Edition of this festival is scheduled for next May 27th-29th, with venues once again around the imposing edifice of Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire. Beforehand, events at Truro in July and an autumn weekend in Horsham are sure to keep the EMF before the public.
Further information on English Music Festival performances and recordings can be found at their website