In concert – English Music Festival Day Four: Gareth Brynmor John & Christopher Glynn; Roderick Williams & Michael Dussek; Ensemble Hesperi

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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

On record – Roderick Williams, Michael Dussek & Bridge Quartet: Those Blue Remembered Hills (EM Records)

Gurney
The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) (1920)
Edward, Edward (1914)
By A Bierside (1916)
String Quartet in D minor (1924-5)
Howells
There was a Maiden (1915)
Girl’s Song (1916)
King David (1919)
The Mugger’s Song (1919)

Roderick Williams (baritone), Michael Dussek (piano), Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield (violins), Michael Schofield (viola), Lucy Wilding (cello)]

EM Records EMR CD065 [80’52”]

Producer Rupert Marshall-Luck
Engineer Patrick Allen

Recorded 4 & 5 June 2018 at Potton Hall, Suffolk

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The latest release from EM Records is largely devoted to music by Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), including the second of his song-cycles with ensemble and the first recording of a large-scale string quartet composed before encroaching mental illness led to a cessation of his creativity.

What’s the music like?

Time was when Gurney was viewed as a poet who also wrote songs, but recent research has unearthed piano music, two orchestral pieces and numerous chamber works. Just how much he wrote and destroyed in a period of activity through to 1927 will probably never be known.

It was the success of Ludlow and Teme (recorded on EMRCD036) which led Gurney to essay a second song-cycle after A. E. Housman. Equally well received, The Western Playland was revised in 1925, when (and of Sorrow) was added to the title as if to point up that emotional dislocation the composer felt when incarcerated at City of London Mental Hospital – far from his beloved Gloucestershire. 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 very different in manner yet comparable in quality to those by Butterworth or Vaughan Williams. The forced jollity of the initial Reveille strikes a slightly jarring note, but the final March conjures a luminous poise which is further enhances by its extended instrumental postlude.

Also featured are two of Gurney’s songs with piano – that of the anonymous ballad Edward, Edward summons a malevolence that finds natural contrast with the sombre wartime (indeed, trench-bound) setting of John Masefield’s By a Bierside. Four songs by Herbert Howells are a reminder of the close personal and regional ties between these composers – three of which are appealing in their craftsmanship, with the setting of Walter de la Mare’s King David as affecting as any song from this period and justifiably receiving of the poet’s endorsement.

The centrepiece here is a String Quartet in D minor – one of several written during Gurney’s incarceration and which, fortunately for posterity, he was able to hear performed thanks to the redoubtable musicologist Marion M. Scott. Extensive revisions made deciphering his ultimate intentions more difficult, but the time and effort has been well worthwhile. The EMR release referred to above contains the original version of the work’s Adagio, and the revision as heard here only intensifies its anguished pathos. This, along with the ruminative ensuing intermezzo, are the highlights of an ambitious entity – the motivic ingenuity of whose opening movement feels undermined by lack of textural or rhythmic clarity; this latter failing arguably inhibiting the vehemence and drama which otherwise inform the finale as it surges to its fatalistic close.

Does it all work?

Almost. Roderick Williams is at his perceptive best in the songs, sensitively accompanied by Michael Dussek. The Bridge Quartet is superb in the song-cycle and makes a fine effort in the quartet, of which further performances are needed to assess the full extent of its achievement.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Gurney is a composer whose stature has only latterly become apparent, and to which this disc is a signal contribution. Spacious and natural sound balance, together with detailed and often insightful annotations, further enhance what is another indispensable EMR release.

Listen and Buy

You can discover more about this release at the EM Records website, where you can hear clips from the recording and also purchase.

On record: Heracleitus (EM Records)

heracleitus

Butterworth: Songs (1910/11)*/** – When the Lad for Longing Sighs; Bredon Hill; On the Idle Hill of Summer; With Rue My Heart is Laden. Songa (1911/12)*/** – Fill a Glass with Golden Wine; On the Way to Kew

Gurney: Ludlow and Teme (1919)*/**/***. Adagio (1924)***. Songs*/** – The Cloths of Heaven (1918); Severn Meadows (1917); By a Bierside (1916).

Warlock: Songs */*** – Heracleitus (1917); Sweet Content (1919)

*Charles Daniels (tenor); **Michael Dussek (piano); ***Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield, violins; Michael Schofield, viola; Lucy Wilding, cello]

Summary

The centenary of the Battle of the Somme has seen various commemorations in music, with this latest release from EM Records among the most significant. It centres on two composers – one of whom died during the Somme offensive, while the other never recovered from being gassed at Passchendaele the next year. The disc also opens-out appreciation of their output in featuring autonomous pieces for string quartet and as accompaniment to several of the songs.

What’s the music like?

All these forces are brought together in Ludlow and Teme, Ivor Gurney’s song-cycle on verse from A.E. Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad. A notable though unstable creative force in those years after the cessation of war, it was long considered among Gurney’s largest and most inclusive works; its expressive range more than compensating for any lack of sustained intensity across its six songs. One of these, ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’, was set by George Butterworth prior to the War – his version confirming both a greater emotional lightness and textural subtlety which are no less apposite. Also included are two Butterworth settings of W. E. Henley, suffused by that dry wit and wistful charm emblematic of the Edwardian era. The disc closes with more Gurney – moving backwards in time so the pathos of W.B. Yeats’s The Cloths of Heavens, and poignancy of the composer’s Severn Meadows, is rounded-off by the eloquence of John Masefield’s By a Bierside in what ranks among Gurney’s greatest settings.

Two songs by Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine, who seems to have avoided conscription via a mixture of guile and happenstance) are among several conceived with accompaniment for string quartet, and have been idiomatically arranged as such by John Mitchell. Of these, Heracleitus is a setting of W.J. Cory (after Callimachus) as evinces the influence of Bernard van Dieren in its sombre tread and harmonic richness, while that of Thomas Dekker’s Sweet Content exudes the chic vacuity which is often to be encountered in Warlock’s lesser songs.

The other two works are also first recordings. Odd that Butterworth’s Suite for String Quartet should have had to wait 15 years since publication, as it is the composer’s largest extant piece and offers valuable insight into his wresting with abstract forms. The opening Andante is well argued, though the Scherzando and Allegro might profitably have been integrated, while the fourth movement is insufficiently contrasted with a final Moderato whose faltering progress is indication of a project lacking the ultimate focus. Not so the Adagio from a String Quartet in D minor, seemingly the only surviving chamber work from Gurney’s final manic outburst of creativity and whose heightened emotion bodes well for a hearing of the complete work.

Does it all work?

Yes, when seen as an overall programme that skilfully interweaves its vocal and instrumental items to give a thoughtful and revealing portrait of the two main composers featured herein.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the contribution of Charles Daniels (best known for his interpretation and editions of Baroque music) is so attuned to the songs in question. Michael Dussek is as ever an attentive accompanist, and the Bridge Quartet continues its persuasive exploration of English music. Both recording and annotations are up to the customary high standard of EM Records.

Richard Whitehouse

For more information on their extensive catalogue of English music, visit the EM Records website