‘Beautiful Modulations’: Welsh Camerata offer an Evening of Edwardian Partsong

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various – Edwardian Summer: Welsh Camerata, Andew Wilson-Dickson (piano* and director), Canton Uniting Church, Cardiff, 30.6.2017. (PCG)

Elgar – ‘As torrents in summer’, ‘My love dwelt in a northern land’, Songs from the Greek Anthology: ‘After many a dusty mile’, ‘It’s oh to be a wild wind’, ‘The shower’
Delius – ‘To be sung of a summer night on the water’; ‘The splendour falls on castle walls’
Percy Grainger – ‘Brigg Fair’
Holst – Six folksong arrangements
Andrew Wilson-Dickson – ‘Yr Haf’
Ernest Moeran – ‘Stalham River’: Toccata*
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor – ‘Summer is gone’

The British unaccompanied partsong reached the zenith of its development during the first years of the twentieth century, culminating in the massive choral symphonies of Granville Bantock written with the large amateur choirs of the day in mind. Since the Second World War there has been a bifurcation between works written for amateurs (influenced by the decline in the numbers of singers in the large choral societies) and those designed with professional or semi-professional groups, generally on a smaller scale. But this concert focused on the music written in the Edwardian era by the three most prominent composers of the day: Elgar, Holst and Delius, all of whom died coincidentally in 1934. Some other figures active at the time, such as Vaughan Williams, wrote most of their major works for unaccompanied singers after the First World War, when they were joined by composers of the stature of Bax and Finzi. On the other hand, one might lament the absence from this concert of less well-known Edwardians such as Rutland Boughton or Josef Holbrooke, but the selection of items here was judicious and well-designed for the fairly small body of singers that constitutes the Welsh Camerata.

Some of the greatest of Elgar’s partsongs were clearly designed with large choral bodies in mind, and among these must be numbered ‘As torrents in summer drawn’ from the epilogue of his massive cantata King Olaf. But while the cantata was for many years comprehensively and unjustifiably neglected (and it remains a rarity), the extract established itself as a semi-independent concert item, although Cardiff audiences will probably be more familiar with Longfellow’s poem as part of Daniel Protheroe’s cantata Nidaros, long a constituent in the staple diet of the Welsh male choir repertory. In the complete cantata Elgar expands his setting thrillingly in its later development, but as a separate item it sounds small-scale by comparison with Protheroe’s more dramatic treatment. The two partsongs ‘After many a dusty mile’ and ‘It’s oh to be a wild wind’ come from Elgar’s Greek Anthology for male choirs (given here in arrangements for mixed choir); they are not on the same grandiloquent and imposing scale as his male choir Reveille, but they have a piquancy of their own which they share with the mixed-voice setting of Henry Vaughan’s ‘The shower’. By comparison the early ‘My love dwelt in a northern land’ sounds conventionally Victorian until the very final bars.

We had only two items from the pen of Yorkshire-born Frederick Delius: the first movement of ‘To be sung of a summer night on the water’ (almost as well-known in the orchestral arrangement made by the composer’s amanuensis Eric Fenby) and the post-war setting of Tennyson’s ‘The splendour falls on castle walls’ (the omission of the pre-war ‘On Craig Ddu’ was regrettable in a Welsh context). Also forming part of this group was Grainger’s arrangement of the folksong ‘Brigg Fair’ which was taken by Delius as the basis of his tone-poem of the same title. Here the solo part was taken by Mark Bishop in a style halfway between the original folk melody and the more sophisticated manner of the concert platform, and the compromise between the two was close to ideal.

Holst in his later years turned his attention to settings of Welsh folksongs, still pieces too little known; but here we encountered his earlier settings of various folk melodies, including ‘Swansea Town’ and the ‘Song of the blacksmith’ which was later re-arranged to form a movement of his second suite for military band. The choir excelled themselves here, especially in the bare harmonies of ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’ and the more complex treatment of ‘I love my love’.

I was not previously familiar with Samuel Taylor-Coleridge’s ‘Summer is gone’, a setting of Christina Rosetti which moved some distance from the diatonic writing of the composer’s earlier work towards Delian chromaticism. It made a fitting conclusion to a programme which also included readings from poetry of the period, and it was interesting to encounter items which are nowadays more familiar as songs: ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield, ‘Silent Noon’ by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and most affectingly of all Housman’s ‘In summertime on Bredon’.

We also heard two piano items by Moeran, both written after the First World War; but piano music by Elgar, Holst and Delius from the Edwardian period is generally unimpressive, and the opportunity to heard Moeran’s atmospheric ‘Stalham River’ is always welcome. Andrew Wilson-Dickson played both this and the Toccata winningly and with a considerable measure of bravura.

Wilson-Dickson’s setting of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poem ‘Yr Haf’ was first given by these singers in 2012, and was here receiving a further performance preceded by a reading of the original poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym (in an English translation by Tim Pearce). Hearing the poem first, I found myself somewhat perplexed by the consideration of what the composer could add to some of the imagery; but in the event Wilson-Dickson appears to have abridged the original lyrics skilfully, and the results were both pleasing and engaging. The singing of the choir was, as throughout, perfectly tuned and beautifully modulated; dynamics were always ideally judged, and the music was superbly paced. One or two adjustments of the textures were necessitated by the actual writing – the tenors in Delius’s ‘The splendour falls’ are divided in a complicated manner that seems unnecessarily difficult to balance – but all such amendments were made with great subtlety.

This programme is being repeated on Friday 7 July at All Saints Church in Barry, and I would urge audiences to make every effort to attend. The evening in Cardiff came into direct competition with a massive concert at the Millennium Stadium across the river featuring Justin Bieber, which blocked the roads for miles around; but the effort required to get to the church in Canton was well worthwhile.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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