John Drinkwater’s Granddaughter Breathes New Life into His Poems

14/03/2015

  Quantz, Gaubert, Vaughan Williams, Grieg, Susie Self, Schumann, Quilter, Howells, Gurney, Kern, Gershwin: Susannah Self, Ellipsis [Melanie Ragge (oboe), Robert Manasse (flute), Susanna Stranders (piano)], Gloucester Music Society, St Mary de Lode Church, Gloucester, 12.3.2015. (RJ)

Johan Joachim Quantz: Trio Sonata in C minor,
Phillipe Gaubert: Madrigal
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Two Songs from Ten Blake Songs
Edvard Grieg: Notturno from Lyric Pieces Op 54 No.4
Susie Self: Dymock Dreams (world premiere) –  Blackbird; Out of the Moon; The Plough;  On a Lake
Robert Schumann: Romance No. 1, Op 94
Roger Quilter: Now sleeps the crimson petal
Herbert Howells: King David
Ivor Gurney: Sleep from Five Elizabethan Songs
Susie Self:  The Cosmic Lion Goddess
Jerome Kern: Can’t help lovin’ that man from Showboat
George Gershwin: A foggy day in London Town

 

In the years before the First World War a coterie of poets were attracted to the village of Dymock on the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border, among them John Drinkwater who was later to forge a reputation as a dramatist and manager of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Nowadays his poetry is less well known than that of other Dymock poets, such as Edward Thomas and Rupert Brooke, although some of it is of very high quality and surely due for a reappraisal? Perhaps Susie Self’s settings (for mezzo-soprano, flute, oboe and piano) of four atmospheric poems of his will stimulate a revival of interest in Drinkwater and his work.

The first poem, Blackbird, is set, not in the countryside. but in an urban landscape, and the song of the bird, portrayed in Robert Manasse’s immaculate flute playing, seems to offer the prospect of hope and release among the “celestial chimney pots”. The cycle leads without a break into Out of the Moon which starts innocently and then assumes a darker hue recalling the art of the troubadours of old and their preoccupation with affairs of the heart.  There was an icy chill in the accompaniment to The Plough depicting the snow falling on the ploughman in the desolate landscape where death seems all around. The mood takes on a more positive note in On a Lake with the reed warblers’ gentle sounds – “the music that hushes / the life of the lake”. 

This was an absorbing song cycle which captured eloquently Drinkwater’s lyricism and affinity with the natural world by a composer whose oeuvre ranges from opera to symphonies.  I was even more impressed by Susie Self’s purely instrumental offering in the recital, The Cosmic Lion Goddess, inspired by a north Indian print depicting a goddess riding a lion and holding the sun. The work takes the form of variations divided into three connected movements: Procession of the Lion Goddess, The Moon Rises, The orange sun returns at dawn. Through the use of Indian musical forms, such as the Bhairav scale in various geometric inversions and rhythmic scales known as talas the composer has created an intriguing blend of Oriental and Western sound-scapes. This is a fascinating piece, imaginative and complex, which works on a number of levels – and was given a committed and persuasive performance by Ellipsis.

What a joy it was to hear Vaughan Williams’ settings of Blake’s Infant Joy and The Piper with Melanie Ragge providing the perfect oboe accompaniment!  Quilter’s wonderfully evocative Now sleeps the crimson petal continued the exploration of 20th century English song and was followed by settings from composers with Gloucester connections. Howells’ King David, from a poem by Walter de la Mare, opens austerely but the mood is later lightened as a nightingale relieves the monarch of his sorrow. The setting of John Fletcher’s Sleep is surely Ivor Gurney’s masterpiece with its gently rocking accompaniment culminating in a heartfelt prayer – “O let my joys have some abiding”.  Mezzo-soprano Susannah (aka Susie) Self imbued her performances with an engaging intimacy keeping her natural ebullience in reserve until the end of the recital when she regaled her audience with Kern and Gershwin.

 

This was a well planned programme abounding in musical gems, not least of which was the opening work, Quantz’s Trio Sonata for flute, oboe and keyboard. The sonata is full of character and variety, and Ellipsis gave a fresh and invigorating performance of it which set the standard for a very enjoyable evening.

 

The enterprising Gloucester Music Society will be championing more English music in two recitals on Saturday 18 April. These feature works by Howell, Bliss, Rubbra, Ireland, Bridge, Venables and the premiere of Christopher Boodle’s Piano Quartet, performed by the Goldfield Ensemble.  For details see www.gloucestermusicsociety.org.uk.

 

Roger Jones

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