Wessex Consort Sings Thomas Hardy Poems at His Family Church Near Dorchester

[Updated Tuesday 17 April 2018 – Seen and Heard International is sad to report the passing of Graham Stansfield  on Friday 13 April, following a long struggle against cancer, an illness he steadfastly refused to make concessions to. He worked consistently throughout lengthy and often debilitating periods of treatment. Indeed, just six days before he had introduced his latest work – new settings of poems by his beloved Thomas Hardy – at a concert in St Michael’s Stinsford, the Hardy family church, given by the Wessex Consort ensemble he co-founded with conductor Andrew King.]

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Graham Stansfield: Wessex Consort (Vicky Jackson, Alison Gormley, Melissa Stansfield [soprano], Sarah Palfreman-Kay, Natalie Davies [mezzo-soprano], Aino Konkka, Ellie Edmonds [alto], Matt Spillett, Michael Aitkenhead [tenor], Tom Asher, John Twitchen [baritone], Tim Emberson, Andrew Fellowes [bass]), Andrew King (conductor), St Michael’s Church, Stinsford, Dorchester, 7.4.2018. (IL)

Graham Stansfield and Andrew King

Graham Stansfield – settings of the following poems by Thomas Hardy: A Church Romance; Great Things; A Broken Appointment; Seen by the Waits; Weathers; Beeny Cliff; Three Dorset Portraits: Mary Anning, Lulworth Cove, William BarnesThe Third Kissing Gate; At the Railways Station Upway; A Trampwoman’s Tragedy; The Darkling Thrush; The Fallow deer; The Oxen

There have been numerous musical settings of Thomas Hardy’s poems by English composers, notably by Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and Gerald Finzi. Finzi’s Earth, Fire and Rain settings particularly impressed this reviewer, especially When I set out for Lyonnesse whose beauty has always haunted me.

This new collection of settings is to be welcomed, especially as delivered by such an accomplished and technically assured ensemble as the Wessex Consort. This concert was given in St Michael’s Church, Stinsford, Dorchester, the Hardy family’s church. It will be recalled that Hardy’s ashes were interred in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey but, in accordance with Hardy’s wishes, his heart was buried at Stinsford.

The works were introduced by the composer, Graham Stansfield, born at the beginning of World War II. Clearly a great admirer of Hardy’s poems (Hardy wrote some 900), he spoke knowledgeably about each one in the programme. It was such a pity that he was not given a microphone, because so many of his remarks were very difficult to hear, especially as his voice tended to droop at the end of his sentences.

The Wessex Consort, founded by Graham Stansfield, comprises young professional singers from London, Dorset and the West Midlands. It has been heard on Classic FM. Central to their singing careers has been their love of Cathedral music and material with strong Dorset connections. Their conductor, Andrew King, is vastly experienced in choral music, including work with the BBC Singers and as a founder member of the Sixteen. Stansfield himself had been a chorister at Westminster Abbey and studied with Herbert Howells. As a young man, he had been driven by the idea of putting the sounds of Westminster Abbey on to the popular music stage. He gained international success doing it under the stage name of Graham Field.

On to the music. The programme began with a suitably tenderly romantic setting of A Church Romance. It charts the beginnings of the romance between Hardy’s parents with these striking lines: ‘A message from his string to her below, Which said: “I claim thee as my own forthright!” ’ In contrast, Great Things joyfully celebrated all things enjoyable in life, such as ‘sweet cyder’, dancing and, of course, love. Love lost through bereavement is the subject matter of Beeny Cliff; Hardy is in remembrance of happier, sunnier days when he and his wife had enjoyed an excursion there. Stansfield has the choir utter an agonised cry at the climax of his setting, intimating a grief that is quite inconsolable.

In between his poetry settings, Stansfield inserted his Dorset Portraits celebrated by the Choir in suitable style. Mary Anning pioneered the searching for fossils along Dorset cliffs. William Barnes, linguist and poetry lover, had been Thomas Hardy’s mentor.

The second half of the concert included a song for male voices only. At the Railway Station Upway was an affecting setting of the poem that ends: ‘And so they went on till the train came in, the convict, and the boy with the violin’. But the standout piece in this section was A Trampwoman’s Tragedy which featured an extended solo by Wessex Consort’s contralto, Aino Konkka. The poem is about the journey to the coast of the trampwoman and her three companions – her lover, another man and an old woman from North Dorset. On the way, there is teasing, flirtation, and murder. On his setting, Stansfield has commented: ‘I wanted to conjure up the sense of the heath, this great landscape and then the sheer tragedy of the story with an almost mystic episode at the end.’

A pleasant and diverting evening.

Ian Lace

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