Wigmore Mondays – Kathryn Rudge & James Baillieu: English song

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Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Gary Pomeroy (viola) & James Baillieu (piano, below)

Howells Come sing and dance (1927)

Quilter Go, lovely rose (1922), Now sleeps the crimson petal (1897), Music, when soft voices die (1926)

William Charles Denis Browne To Gratiana, dancing and singing (1913)

Howells Peacock Pie Op.33 (1919)

Ivor Gurney Sleep (1914); Most holy night (1920); The Fields are full (pub. 1928); By a bierside (1916)

Bridge Three songs with viola [Far, far from each other; Where is it that our soul doth go?; Music when soft voices die] (1903-06)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Kathryn Rudge has a special affinity with English song, and in particular the music of Herbert Howells. I remember an especially moving account of his most famous song King David at the Wigmore Hall a few years back, and here she and pianist James Baillieu enjoyed the open-air sonorities of his song Come sing and dance (from 1:26 on the broadcast).

Howells is one of several English composers who excelled in the form of song, but who are not heard often in concert programs, so it was gratifying to see these two BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists trying something different.

Roger Quilter was the most celebrated song composer of the five here, and the selection of three of his most famous songs was lovingly performed. Go, lovely rose (from 6:02), Now sleeps the crimson petal (9:08) an Music, when soft voices die (11:38) all showed off his melodic craft and subtly rapturous word settings, not to mention flowing piano accompaniment that was superbly played by Baillieu.

Most striking of all those here was the biggest rarity, a song by William Denis Browne, who was killed in the First World War. He left a tiny output of music, dying at the age of 27, and this song – To Gratiana dancing and singing (from 13:47) – left a lasting impression with its strong melody and bold, grand piano part.

james-baillieu-clive-bardaAfter the war English composers were attracted to the simple poetry of Walter de la Mare, and Howells delivered a short, six-part song cycle Peacock Pie, setting verses for children. Here it was oddly enchanting, especially the story of Tired Tim (19:37), who took an age to get up the stairs, the strangely charming figure of Mrs MacQueen or the lumbering profile of The dunce (25:35), a kind of march gone wrong. Rudge could perhaps have used more variety in her portrayal of the characters here, but Howells’ invention and distinctive harmonies shone through, especially in the magical Full Moon (26:45).

On to the tragic figure of Ivor Gurney, much of whose output remains unpublished after his tragically early move to the asylum. The quartet of songs here were dramatic in the extreme though – a resigned Sleep (30:51), a protective Most Holy Night (33:50) the heady, summer stillness of The fields are full (39:49) – vividly caught by both performers – and finally the terrible truth of By a bierside. Written in the trenches in France, its coda (43:20) sings of how ‘it is most grand to die’. This was the loudest and most painful music of the concert, but Baillieu’s response was magical, subtly moving the music through the keys to reach a less painful finish.

Finally we heard songs by Britten’s teacher and friend Frank Bridge, a masterful viola player who wrote his own instrument into these three songs, written between 1903 and 1906. In this performance they were highly charged, and could perhaps have done with more light and shade from singer and viola, but these minor gripes were outdone by the enjoyment of Bridge’s turbulent writing in Far, far from each other (47:10), the resignation of Where is it that our soul doth go? (from 51:00) and finally the warmer heart of Music, when soft voices die (54:45).

As an encore Rudge and Baillieu chose perfectly, opting for Alan Robert Murray’s song I’ll walk beside you (58:33), uncannily sharing a wish for a better, more inclusive world.

Further listening

Kathryn Rudge and James Baillieu made their debut album as a partnership for Champs Hill Records in 2014 – and it complements the songs in this concert perfectly.

In concert – Werther Ensemble: British Piano Quartets at St John’s, Smith Square

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Werther Ensemble (Jamie Campbell (violin), Nicholas Bootiman (viola), James Barralet (cello), Simon Callaghan (piano); St John’s Smith Square, London, 21 February 2016

Bliss Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 5 (1915)

Howells Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 21 (1916)

Alwyn Rhapsody (1938)

Walton Piano Quartet in D minor (1919)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Werther Ensemble has proved itself adept across the broad spectrum of nineteenth- and twentieth-century chamber music, and this enterprising programme demonstrated the range of response by British composers to that most often overlooked of media – the piano quartet.

Admittedly it got off to a lukewarm start with the Piano Quartet by Sir Arthur Bliss. True the first movement began impressively, but its ensuing contrast of romantic ardour with a gauche folksiness the composer was soon to jettison never quite worked, then the central Intermezzo was simply too short and lightweight to hold a balance between its predecessor and the lively finale with its dutiful recall of the work’s opening theme towards the close. Understandable if Bliss should have left this piece to its fate as he headed off in a radically different direction.

A year younger, Howells completed his own Piano Quartet at much the same time, yet here there could be no doubt as to its consistency of musical idiom with those other chamber works from this composer’s early maturity. The opening movement unfolded with no mean deliberation, its main ideas emerging gradually and only rarely asserting themselves against a constantly shifting harmonic context.

For all that it conveyed a purposeful momentum as the Werther was mindful to contrast with the lingering eloquence of the central Lento – building in stages towards a soulful climax tinged with regret. After this, the finale may have surprised with its rhythmic incisiveness and often headlong progress, yet the affirmative outcome was audibly in keeping with the underlying trajectory of this ‘dark horse’ among works of its kind.

After the interval, a welcome revival for the Rhapsody as was the first of Alwyn’s two contributions to the medium. This packed a wealth of incident into its modest timespan of a little more than nine minutes. The tensile initial idea proved dominant while being flexible enough to accommodate understated material in a loosely palindromic structure that brought a satisfying completion. The Werther was more than equal to the technical challenges of a piece as reminded one some of Alwyn’s most distinctive music is to be found in his chamber output.

The programme concluded with the Piano Quartet by which the teenage Walton gave notice of his protean talent. Although revised in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, this is very much a young composer’s music – one steeped in recent scores by Ravel and Stravinsky that are put to productive use over its thematically interrelated four movements.

The Werther duly sustained its half-hour span with conviction to spare – whether in its trenchant response to the bracing scherzo, the ambivalent shadows that inform the Andante’s fitful progress, or the ingenuity by which the opening movement links hands with the finale in an impressive show of technical resource and cumulative energy – especially during the latter’s heady central passage, a sure pointer towards the composer’s musical preoccupations a decade and more hence.

An impressive conclusion, then, to a well-conceived and finely executed recital, in spite of the occasional intonational flaw. Apparently this had to be postponed from last year because of illness among the ensemble – in which case, its rescheduling was justified in every respect.