An Impressive Recital of English Song in a Fine Setting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Elgar, Gurney, Warlock, Finzi, Ireland, Howells, Vaughan Williams: Philip Lancaster (baritone), Andrew Plant (piano), St Michael and All Angels Church, Bedford Park, London, 27.10.2012.   (MH)

Elgar: Like to the damask rose, A Song of Autumn, The Poet’s Life
: Scents, Kathleen ni Houlihan
: Autumn Twilight, The bayley berith the bell away
: Let us Garlands bring
: Three Ballads
: Wanderers (from A Garland for de la Mare)
Vaughan Williams
: Songs of Travel                                              

Over the past six years the English Musical Festival, based in South Oxfordshire, has been held at a number of venues (such as Dorchester Abbey and Radley College), and in so doing it has become a ‘Glasto’ (without the mud) for lovers of English art-music. It is a serious and ambitious multi-faceted project committed to explore the whole gamut of native music with an emphasis on the re-discovery and revival of late-nineteenth and twentieth century works as well as on premiering of new music.

For this evening’s foray to London the EMF presented two artists known for their commitment to English music. The baritone Philip Lancaster is a professional singer, editor and writer specialising in twentieth century British music in general and the poetry and music of Ivor Gurney in particular. Andrew Plant, much in demand as an accompanist, is a scholar and broadcaster with a specialist interest in the music of Peter Warlock.

Tonight’s programme ranged mainly over fifty years of English music (c 1890-1940) and explored two broad themes: autumn as metaphor, a reminder of mortality; and journeying as metaphor, with the artist as wanderer, a familiar trope of nineteenth-century romanticism.

The concert began with three little-performed Elgar settings from the early-1890s. Right from the start, the performers established an impressive rapport with each other and connected confidently with the audience with lyrics that invited the audience to meditate on the transience of beauty (Like to the damask rose), on the brevity of human life (A Song of Autumn), and the artist’s struggle to secure fame in an uncaring world (The Poet’s Life). Lancaster and Plant blended voice and piano beautifully – with special loveliness of the Elizabethan lyric Like to the damask rose – while combining rhythmic momentum and expressive delicacy in all three songs.

Gloucester-born poet and composer Ivor Gurney, one of the rising young stars of English music, was wounded and gassed in the trenches in 1917. Despite increasing mental health issues his gifts nevertheless flourished in the early-1920s and it was at this time that he wrote Scents, words by Edward Thomas, a poem dealing with the complex sensuality of autumn, and Kathleen ni Houlihan, a ballad by W. B. Yeats, in which the autumnal beauty of Ireland is personified by an ageing warrior-queen. Lancaster with his subtle phrasing excelled in these songs; supported by Plant’s suave and eloquent accompaniment he captured the shifting harmonies, the sensitive flowing lines, and the rhythmic subtleties of Gurney’s music, even if one or two higher notes sounded slightly forced.

Peter Warlock, inspired by both folk-song and Tudor music, wrote songs that have long been acclaimed as miniature masterpieces. The musicians demonstrated what a quality team they are in both songs chosen, Autumn Twilight (1922) and the sixteenth-century lyric The bayley berith the bell away (1918), exploring Warlock’s sophisticated tonal beauties with insight, evident commitment and fastidious attention to expressive detail.

Gerald Finzi’s Let us Garlands bring (1942) comprises of five songs from Shakespeare’s plays that reveal the composer’s extraordinary sensitivity to the richness of the English language. Lancaster and Plant gave an excellent reading of all five songs, moving effortlessly from the exuberant freshness of O mistress mine and It was a lover and his lass, through the celebratory wonderment of Who is Sylvia?, to the dark stoicism of Fear no more the heat of the sun and Come away death. Throughout they made the most of the subtly poised melodic lines and superb part writing, while at the same time conveying Finzi’s unerring ability to find the living centre of vocal texts.

The second part of the recital began with songs by John Ireland, a major figure in English music in the interwar decades though now much neglected. Philip Lancaster, while working with the grain of Ireland’s renowned craftsmanship, communicated the composer’s passionate, mystical response in the Three Ballades (1913-22), namely Sea-Fever, The bells of San Marie and The Vagabond, the texts by John Masefield.

Next up was Herbert Howells’s Wanderers (1958), a setting of Walter de la Mare, in which the performers managed to capture and transmit the composer’s rapt evocation of the starry heavens, a vision of the cosmos that metaphorically imparted the unlimited possibilities of Man.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s reputation as a composer for voice and piano rests on his A. E. Housman settings, On Wenlock Edge. Yet his earlier cycle, Songs of Travel (dating mostly from 1905-07) to texts by R. L. Stevenson with its affinities with Schubert’s Winterreise, is relatively little-known. Lancaster and Plant once again held nothing back in their interpretation throwing themselves into the various stages the young artist-hero’s spiritual journey as he revels in the possibilities of the road (The Vagabond), the beauties of nature (Let Beauty Awake), the ‘golden pavilions’ of love (Youth and Love) and endures separation and loneliness (In Dreams), while finally accepting the consolation of his memories and his art. Throughout they captured Vaughan Williams’s sound-world on the threshold of fame, at once reflective and passionate.

The recital programme was intelligently conceived, delivered with pace and conviction and hugely enjoyable. As for the overall sound-quality, whereas this gem of a Victorian church was acoustically fine for those in seats closest to the performers, the audience further back lost something of the aural focus. The small muffled tone of the Blüthner ‘baby-grand’ too left something to be desired.

The English Music Festival can nevertheless count its evening in London a considerable success. Excellent programme-notes penned by the soloist guided an appreciative audience through the music performed, while fine English wine was made available to refresh those needing to keep the autumn chill at bay. Philip Lancaster and Andrew Plant acquitted themselves admirably in a challenging programme, while the Church of St Michael’s and All Angels, a building designed by Norman Shaw and consecrated in 1880, provided a fine setting for an impressive recital.

Meirion Hughes