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 – Skempton: Man and Bat, Piano Concerto & The Moon is Flashing (First Hand Records)

Howard Skempton
Eternity’s Sunrise (2003)
The Moon is Flashing (2007, arr. 2018)
Piano Concerto (2015, arr. 2018)
Man and Bat (2017)

James Gilchrist (tenor, The Moon is Flashing); Roderick Williams (baritone, Man and Bat); Tim Horton (piano, Piano Concerto); Ensemble 360

First Hand Records FHR90 [70’25”]

English texts included
Producer Tim Oldham
Engineer Phil Rowlands

Recorded 20 July 2019 at Upper Chapel, Sheffield (Man and Bat), 5-7 February 2019 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London (others)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A welcome addition to the recorded representation of Howard Skempton (b1947), including two pieces specially arranged by the composer for reduced forces and also two pieces written specifically for ensemble, all performed by artists closely associated with Skempton’s music.

What’s the music like?

Vocal writing has been a mainstay of Skempton’s in over recent years, the two largest pieces here setting poems by D.H. Lawrence. The term ‘setting’ is used advisedly, given Skempton’s approach is not one of expressive interpretation; rather one in which those individual words articulate a vocal line which, in its turn, articulates the instrumental writing so as to provide context.

Such is the premise on which Man and Bat operates – Lawrence’s highly descriptive, indeed discursive poem treated as a formal framework around which the ensemble unfolds a dialogue of constantly varying (not necessarily developing) motifs and phrases as provide an aural equivalent to what is being described. A not dissimilar approach is pursued in Snake, but here the musical treatment is audibly more static as befits a poem centred upon thought rather than action. This provides the concluding stage in a triptych preceded by a setting of Chris Newman’s self-deprecating A Day in 3 Wipes then, before it, the quizzical humour of Skempton’s own The Moon is Flashing which affords this diverse cycle its overall title.

The other two pieces are both instrumental, while being highly differentiated in themselves. Skempton has used generic titles only sparingly, his Piano Concerto predictable only in its avoidance of obvious models or precursors – the five movements (each lasting between two and four minutes) amounting to a series of vignettes in which the soloist variously combines with the ensemble, here a string quartet rather than string orchestra as originally conceived. Its title might suggest a natural piece with which to open, but Eternity’s Sunrise also makes for a persuasive rounding-off – a perfectly proportioned entity which amounts to a sequence of variations on an undulating theme apposite to the lines from William Blake that provided inspiration. Once again, Skempton’s writing is affecting through its sheer self-effacement.

Does it all work?

Very much so. From an output dominated by miniatures for the piano or accordion (his own instrument), Skempton has amassed a sizable and ever more varied catalogue from which the present release offers a judicious selection. It helps when the performances are so responsive to those qualities of emotional restraint and attention to detail that define the essence of this music. Roderick Williams and James Gilchrist can be relied upon for unforced insight, as too can the underrated pianist Tim Horton and the grouping of soloists which is Ensemble 360.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Skempton now enjoys a substantial discography which features a number of releases devoted to his music (most notably those on the NMC label), to which should now be added this latest from the always enterprising First Hand Records. The sound has all the focus and detail necessary with this composer, whose succinctly informative notes on each piece are complemented by anecdotal observations from each of the soloists. Those who are new to Skempton will find this an ideal way into his compositional ethos, where little is as it seems.

Stream

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Presto website

On record: Eve Daniell, Roderick Williams & Simon Lepper – John Pickard: Songs (Toccata)

John Pickard Songs Eve Daniell (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano)

Pickard
The Borders of Sleep
Binyon Songs
The Phoenix

Toccata Classics TOCC0413 [61’01’’] English texts included
Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder
Recorded January 7th and 8th 2017 at St George’s, Bristol

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc of music by John Pickard (b1963) from Toccata Classics, this time focussing on his output for voice and piano which to date comprises just three works, though these are no less personal than his more extensive contributions to the orchestral and chamber genres.

What’s the music like?

In his booklet notes, Pickard speaks of the difficulty in finding the right words for music thus intended. His works featuring baritone evince due discernment in those poets he has set. Not least the Binyon Songs – five settings of Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), the ubiquity of whose For the Fallen has detracted from a large and varied corpus. The present sequence is nothing if not representative – conveying abused benevolence in Nature, re-emergence in Sowing Seed and hectic transition in Autumn Song. The warm confessional of When all the world is hidden (a likely counterpart to Mahler’s Liebst du um Schönheit?) makes for a telling foil to the relatively expansive The Burning of the Leaves, affording closure through its insight into the immutable process of decay and renewal – an apotheosis as probing as it is profound.

Whereas the Binyon songs are a loosely related sequence, The Borders of Sleep is a song-cycle in formal intent and expressive scope. Here the texts are by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), considered a ‘wat poet’ (he died at Arras) though one whose poetry tends toward the speculative and even oblique. These concerns are pursued across the course of nine songs – taking in such as the sombre monotony of The Mill-Water, black irony of The Gallows and impermanence of Rain. The final settings comprise a fitting culmination: the mood of Last Poem, made concrete by its alternate title The sorrow of true love, transmuted into the fatalistic calm of Lights Out whose initial line also provides the title of this work and whose intimation of transcendence through the release of sleep affords its own benediction.

In contrast, the earliest piece here sets the earliest text, The Phoenix freely adapted from R. K. Gordon’s translation of a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book. In fining down the expansive original (677 lines), Pickard has created a scena for soprano and piano where the evocation of this mythical bird’s demise and rebirth becomes metaphor for change and renewal; hence aligning it with the more recent poets featured here then, by extension, the underlying concerns to be found in even the most abstract among Pickard’s compositions.

Does it all work?

Very much so – not least when the performances are so attuned to the spirit and sensibility of Pickard’s music. A stalwart of English-song repertoire, Roderick Williams invests the Binyon and Thomas settings with unsparing emotional acuity, and if Eve Daniell experiences passing difficulty with pitching and intonation, her command of high-flown rhetoric in The Phoenix leaves no doubt as to her identity with this piece. Simon Lepper’s accompaniment is of the highest order, while recorded sound judges balance between voice and piano to perfection.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and Pickard will hopefully add to his output for voice and piano in due course. In the meantime, acquire this disc and check out the composer’s orchestrations of his Binyon songs (also performed by Williams) on the English Music Records’ anthology Now Comes Beauty.

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, while for more on John Pickard, you can visit his website here

BBC Proms 2017 – I Fagiolini introduce Monteverdi to the Cadogan Hall

I Fagiolini / Robert Hollingworth (above) Photo (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Monteverdi Cruda Amarilli; Sfogava con le stele; Longe da te, cor mio; Possente spirto from Orfeo, Chiome d’oro, Vorrei baciarti, o Filli

Roderick Williams Là ci darem la mano (BBC commission: world premiere)

Monteverdi Laudate pueri Dominum a 5 (concertato); Volgendo il ciel per l’immortal sentiero

Cadogan Hall, Monday 17 July 2017

Listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer

As an introduction to the wide musical canon of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), there is surely no better place to start than with this vividly coloured concert from I Fagiolini and their quirky leader Robert Hollingworth.

They gave the Cadogan Hall – and BBC Radio 3 listeners – an insight into his daring harmonic world, showing just how keenly Monteverdi could respond to the challenges of word setting. They also showed how he could operate equally effectively in a reverent sacred setting, using the same imagination as in the wild and wonderful secular works.

Monteverdi, who was born 450 years ago to the year, is essentially a ‘Renaissance’ composer (the period running very roughly from 1400 to 1600) but he wrote in such an original way that even now his music sounds forward-looking.

The first trio of madrigals in this concert showed the composer’s skill with unaccompanied voices, and the clarity with which I Fagiolini could deliver them. Cruda Amarilli (from 2:14 on the broadcast link) Sfogava con le stele (5:17) and the darker Longe da te, cor mio (8:45) were all performed with the utmost clarity.

Monteverdi is also the acknowledged father of opera, with L’Orfeo (1607) the first example in the form. It is a remarkable work, and this lengthy excerpt (from 13:09 to 22:30) shows why. Tenor Matthew Long held his notes with impeccable control, but also showered them with the composer’s written embellishments, fluctuating the note ever so slightly to give extra expression. He was shadowed by violins (Rachel Podger and Kati Debretzeni) and cornetts (Gawain Glenton and Conor Hastings).

Back to the madrigals, and the seventh book Monteverdi published in Venice in 1613. Chiome d’oro (Golden tresses) (24:14) had an attractive introduction with the two violins dovetailed, a sign of things to come from the sopranos Anna Crookes and Ciara Hendrick, and their beautiful duet from 25:06. From 27:37-32:32 the spotlight changed to Hollingworth, whose nervous lover was characterised to perfection, and Kendrick, his intended. As the song progressed so he moved progressively closer to her, and by the end the two leaned in towards s kiss – a simple but extremely effective staging!

From 35:30-42:13 we heard a new work, Roderick Williams imaginatively setting Lorenzo da Ponte’s words used by Mozart in the famous Don Giovanni aria Là ci darem la mano, here set for a five-voice choir. Williams writes through the eyes and ears of Monteverdi and the results were intriguing and often laced with humour. In the middle he added a clever invention, the reading of a letter from Monteverdi while the singers tried to outdo each other in the background. The madrigal ended in a flurry of sexual tension.

Roderick Williams takes the applause with I Fagiolini and Robert Hollingworth after the world premiere of his interpretation of Là ci darem la mano.

Finally a pair of real wonders, a setting of Laudate pueri Dominum (from 44:33) and then an extended madrigal, Volgendo il ciel per l’immortal sentiero (52:42–1:03:13), designed for the praise of the Emperor in spite of the Thirty Years War. It is a mini-masterpiece, capped by the central dance (59:10) and its lilting rhythms begun by theorbo player Eligio Quinteiro. In these capable hands we enjoyed the complete purity of C major, beautifully spun by Monteverdi’s hand.

A wonderful concert, then, performed in the vivacious spirit that I Fagiolini bring to all their performances, celebrating the humour and quirky rhythms within the music, but bringing the seriousness of Monteverdi’s invention to play also. I urge you to hear it!

Ben Hogwood