The Great War Commemorated in a Superb Recital by Roderick Williams and Gary Matthewman

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (1) Roderick Williams (baritone), Gary Matthewman (piano), Huntingdon Hall, Worcester, 26.7.2014 (JQ)


George Butterworth: Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad

Turn of the century Empire
Sir Arthur Somervell – The Street Sounds to the Soldier’s Tread
Sir Edward Elgar – A War Song

The storm clouds gather
Ivor Gurney – Black Stichel
Gerald Finzi – Channel Firing

In the trenches
Martin Shaw – Venizel
Ivor Gurney – In Flanders
John Ireland – The Cost

The noble spirit in adversity
Charles Ives – In Flanders Fields
Ivor Gurney – Captain Stratton’s Fancy

Counting the cost
William Denis Browne – To Gratiana Dancing and Singing
Ernest Farrar – Silent Noon

Dead Poet’s Society
John Ireland – The Soldier
Elaine Hugh-Jones – Futility
Anthony Payne – Adelstrop

Gerald Finzi – Harvest
Ian Venables – Flying Crooked; Pain

Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Twilight People
Gerald Finzi – Only a man harrowing clods


Roderick Williams’ song recitals are always a high point of any Three Choirs Festival with tickets like the proverbial hen’s teeth. This recital on the opening afternoon of the 2014 festival was particularly alluring for Williams was exploring the theme of the Great War – understandably, a significant programming preoccupation at this year’s Three Choirs – and he is justly renowned as one of the finest exponents of English song currently before the programme.

The recital took place in Huntingdon Hall, a converted chapel. This is a nice, intimate venue, well suited in size and acoustic for such an event. Unfortunately, the UK is currently experiencing a heat wave and the temperature in the hall was certainly in excess of thirty degrees. It proved impossible to open doors or windows for ventilation without admitting significant amounts of extraneous noise from outside so the audience and performers had to struggle with unreasonable heat: it was akin to hearing music in a sauna. Midway through the first half Williams excused himself to fetch towels for himself and his pianist: I’ve never seen that happen before.

In the circumstances it was truly remarkable that despite the heat Williams and Gary Matthewman produced performances which seemed completely unaffected by the heat. Matthewman in particular must have found his fingers slipping on the piano keys but, apart from possibly one tiny slip, his playing was immaculate. More than that, it was consistently insightful and full of countless felicitous touches.

Roderick Williams had devised his programme with great perception and I’ve included in italics the titles for each subsection of the programme to demonstrate how imaginatively the programme fitted together.

A E Housman’s celebrated collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad, pre-dates the First World War but many of its nostalgic sentiments resonate so strongly with that conflict that it is scarcely surprising that the poems were so popular with the troops – I believe it was, after The Bible, the book most commonly carried by soldiers at the front. Williams began with some of the most celebrated of all Housman settings, a collection of six made by George Butterworth. The songs could have been written for Williams so well do they suit his voice. These songs allowed him to demonstrate a number of features that would be common throughout the recital. He sang with marvellously warm tone, the range of colours wide and always deployed in an apposite way. The top register was effortless and true – the high opening phrase of ‘Loveliest of trees’ an exemplar for all who would sing it. Not only did he produce glorious sound but also the clarity of his diction was splendid. No texts were provided until the end of the recital – Williams courteously and rightly prefers his audience to listen rather than to have their heads in the programme book – but written texts were superfluous. I can honestly say that I heard every word distinctly during this recital. However, Roderick Williams does so much more than enunciate words clearly; he invests every word with meaning.

I thought the Butterworth songs were outstanding. If I had to single out a couple it would be the last two. ‘The lads in their hundreds’, sung with an easy lilt and seamless line, conveyed the increasingly melancholic mood of the verses as the poem developed. Then the performance of ‘Is my team ploughing?’ was simply superb. The song was tellingly characterised by Williams, though without exaggeration, and the technical control in the mezza voce verses was deeply impressive. Gary Matthewman’s playing was wonderful, with the chords perfectly placed and weighted.

The songs by Somervell and Elgar were, shall we say, of their time, rousing and definitely the product of an era when huge swathes of the map of the world were part of the British Empire. That said, Elgar’s setting did at least sometimes suggest the toll exacted by war, a subject he would explore infinitely more effectively some years later in The Spirit of England.

Finzi’s Channel Firing is a great song and here it received the finest performance I can recall hearing.  Matthewman’s delivery of the piano part, so crucial to the ambience of the song, was masterly and Williams’ singing was riveting. This was a prime example of how his care for the words enhances whatever song he is singing while his vocal technique was quite superb – the controlled diminuendo on the word ‘avenge’ near the end was flawlessly achieved. John Ireland’s songs are not as celebrated as the finest of Finzi’s but he wrote many very good songs and the intense The Cost was a particularly good choice for this programme.

I’ve heard Roderick Williams sing Gurney’s Captain Stratton’s Fancy on disc but it was a treat to experience his witty delivery live. It’s not as fine a setting as the one by Peter Warlock but Williams almost makes you think it could be.

George Butterworth is reckoned by many people to be music’s greatest loss from World War I; but what of William Denis Browne? On the evidence of the handful of songs that he left behind, such as The Isle of Lost Dreams, he could have accomplished much had he lived.   Roderick Williams offered us Browne’s best-known song, the very fine To Gratiana Dancing and Singing. Here the vocal line was seamless, graceful and poised, while once again Gary Matthewman’s pianism was a delight.

Ernest Farrar, another casualty of the war, was represented by his setting of Silent Noon and I was interesting to hear this song again and to be reminded that it bears more than a hint of Vaughan Williams’ much better-known setting.  I’m not sure I’ve heard previously any music by Elaine Hugh-Jones (b. 1927) so I was glad of the opportunity to hear her setting of Wilfred Owen (‘Move him into the sun’) though it seemed to me to be rather in the shadow of the Britten setting of the same text in War Requiem; when was the Hugh-Jones setting composed, I wonder? I found Anthony Payne’s setting of Edward Thomas – another of the ‘Dead Poets’ who failed to survive the conflict – strange and unsettling but well worth hearing – and hearing again, I hope.

The more I hear of the songs of Ian Venables (b. 1955) the more impressed I am. Roderick Williams, who has championed them in concert, offered two highly contrasted songs. I’ve heard the entertaining Flying Crooked before (
review) and Williams’ witty delivery went down well with this Three Choirs audience. I don’t recall hearing Pain before, however. This intense, even harrowing setting of words by Ivor Gurney is a very fine song indeed.

After Vaughan Williams’s spare and intense The Twilight People the last word went to Gerald Finzi. Williams’ searching performance of Only a man harrowing clods brought the recital to a subdued, thoughtful end. I rather suspect that after this we might not have got an encore anyway – and rightly so – but I’m sure Roderick Williams and Gary Matthewman were exhausted by their exertions in the Huntingdon Hall hothouse. So on this occasion no one in the audience would have begrudged them leaving us wanting more.

This thoughtfully planned programme produced an exceptionally fine recital.

John Quinn


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