Cheltenham 2011 :A Trio of Song Cycles opens the music festival

Fauré, Vaughan Williams, Venables : Caroline MacPhie, Allan Clayton, Elias String Quartet, Tom Poster (piano), Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 29.6.2011 (RJ)

Fauré: La Bonne Chanson Op 61

Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge

Venables: Remember This, Op 40

When Michael Berkeley assumed the direction of the Cheltenham Music Festival back in the 1990s he was determined to feature in the programme song recitals which had hitherto been regarded as a minority taste and “box office poison”. His persistence has clearly paid off, for this year the organisers were sufficiently emboldened to start off the Festival with a song recital – and one which featured a substantial new work,. But more of this later.

Caroline MacPhie began the Festival with one of Fauré’s most important works, his nine settings of poems fron Verlaine’s La Bonne Chanson , in the version for piano and string quintet which was premiered in London. The addition of strings certainly adds “body” to the work, but many, including Fauré himself, prefer the original piano arrangement. However I must confess to being seduced by the lush string playing in Une Sainte en son auréole (A saint in her halo) which explores the associations suggested by the name of Verlaine’s future wife, Mathilde Maute.

Caroline radiated joy and ecstasy in Puisque l’aube grandit (Since dawn breaks) and in La lune blanche (The pale moon) the strings’ silvery tone added to the romantic atmosphere. A darker tone entered J’allais par les chemins perfides (I followed treacherous paths) , though it ended happily enough, and the anxieties in J’ai presque peur (I’m almost afraid) were well expressed. There were occasions when the intervention of the strings seemed almost superfluous but they certainly enriched the final song, L’hiver a cessé (Winter is over), where singer and ensemble celebrated the return of spring with joyful exhuberance.

Vaughan Williams blazed the trail for English song composers in his cycle On Wenlock Edge as he invoked the bitter-sweet sentiments expressed in Housman’s verse. Allan Clayton captured well the disturbed nature of the opening song with its atmospheric accompaniment, but I was surprised that he should drop the persona of the ghost in the fifth stanza of Is my team ploughing? It detracted from the nasty sting in the tale in the final verse. Summertime on Bredon was handled perfectly with a strong contrast between the bliss of the early stanzas and the bleak sorrow of the later ones. The tolling bell of the accompaniment continued into the final poem, Clun, in which grief reaches its apotheosis.

Each time I hear this work I become increasingly aware of the subtleties of the instrumental accompaniment, and one can discern the influence of Ravel with whom Vaughan Williams had studied recently. He was later to orchestrate the work, but it works better in this more intimate version, and Allan Clayton’s sensitive singing made this a performance to savour.

Ian Venables uses the same instrumental combination (piano quintet) as Vaughan Williams in Remember This, his setting of Sir Andrew Motion’s poem written on the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The poems alternate between the elegiac – death, lying in state, the funeral procession and the final resting place – and vignettes which touch on aspects of her life, such as salmon fishing and horses. A four note Remember This motif binds the different sections of the cantata together and the singing is shared between the soprano and the tenor.

Allan Clayton reflected on the final hours of life ending on a note of triumph as the soul is released from its mortal coil, after which Caroline MacPhie sang brightly of the salmon returning to its breeding grounds. The atmosphere of the lying in state was enhanced by some words sung falsetto. Later as the solemn funeral procession with its muffled drum beats approached its close the rhythm accelerated into a gallop and we were treated to a sunlit vision of race horses training on the downs. The fourth elegy, sung by the soprano, was pervaded with a profound stillness evoking “time-tested dignity and pride and finished work personified”. The two singers came together to sing the closing vignette which pays tribute to a life of public service and invites the listeners to reflect on their own journeys through life.

In a song recital the spotlight inevitably falls on the singers and I fear that I have failed to do justice in this review to the youthful Elias Quartet, who have just embarked on their ambitious Beethoven Project (see ). While I look forward to hearing them playing alone, I recognise that the ability of tightly knit ensembles to blend in with other musicians is no mean accomplishment, and on this occasion they acquitted themselves superbly. And what can I say about the excellent Tom Poster? His versatility and unerring sense of what works best marks him out as a musician’s musician and everyone in the business should be beating a path to his door.

Roger Jones