United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (5) – Finzi & From your ever-loving son, Jack: Joshua Ellicott (tenor), Simon Lepper (piano), St Catherine’s Church, Gloucester, 31.7.2019 (JQ)
Finzi – A Young Man’s Exhortation Op.14
Various/Ellicott – From your ever-loving son Jack
Songs and piano music by Bridge, Finzi, Ireland, Haydn Wood, Poulenc, Debussy, Hahn and MacMillan
This recital took place in St Catherine’s, a spacious Edwardian church in the Gothic style just outside Gloucester city centre. I’m not sure how often it has been used in the past for Three Choirs Festival events but it is an excellent venue in many respects, possessing a good performance space on the recently remodelled sanctuary, comfortable seating and good acoustics. It also has a very good organ, though we didn’t hear that today. Sadly, the audience for this concert was less numerous than either the programme content or the quality of the performances merited: I suppose that’s a consequence of just how much is going on at this busy festival.
In July 2016, I attended a recital by Joshua Ellicott and Simon Lepper. Given as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival, it was, quite simply, one of the most moving musical events it has ever been my good fortune to review. The programme consisted of From your ever-loving son, Jack, an hour-long sequence in which Joshua Ellicott read extracts from letters that ‘3604 Rifleman Ellicott J’ had written home to his parents in Lancashire while on active service with the British Army during the First World War. The readings were interspersed with pieces of music, all discerningly chosen. That recital was given during the period when we were commemorating the centenary of the so-called Great War and I had wondered, therefore, if the ‘Jack’ sequence would continue to be performed after 2018. I was delighted to see that it has and that Ellicott and Lepper were bringing it to the Three Choirs Festival.
To make a full recital programme they added Finzi’s cycle of ten songs to poems by Thomas Hardy, A Young Man’s Exhortation, which was composed between 1926 and 1929. These are marvellous songs and choice examples of Finzi’s great perception in selecting English texts and of his intuitive skill in setting the chosen words to music. I enjoyed today’s performance very much indeed. Joshua Ellicott seemed fully in tune with both words and music, whilst Simon Lepper played with great finesse and understanding. Theirs was a true partnership. In the first song, which gives the cycle its title, I admired Ellicott’s wide dynamic range and some exquisite pianistic touches from Lepper. The pensive last stanza, beginning ‘If I have seen one thing…’ was an excellent example of Finzi’s ability to make his music fit the words like a glove.
The jaunty ‘Budmouth Dears’ was well brought off. ‘The Comet at Yellham’ was superbly performed. The extraordinary, otherworldly piano part was most imaginatively realised by Simon Lepper and both artists displayed subdued intensity throughout. Their performance was magnetic. Ellicott communicated the words of ‘Shortening Days’ very strongly and in the following song, ‘The Sigh’ I admired equally the tender singing and the delicacy of the pianism. This was a treasurable performance. The very last song, ‘The Dance Continued’, displayed flowing lyricism tinged with melancholy – in other words, quintessential Finzi. The song was delivered with fine feeling, capping an excellent traversal of the whole cycle.
Jack Ellicott was born in 1890 in the small Lancashire town of Earlestown. He had a younger brother, Harry, born in 1904. Harry Ellicott was the grandfather of Joshua Ellicott. Young Jack joined up in late 1914 or early 1915 – the exact date seems to be unknown – joining the Prince of Wales Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment). And so he became 3604 Rifleman Ellicott J. The words we heard today, read in an unaffected Lancashire accent by Joshua Ellicott, were all from Jack’s letters home to his parents. The letters were penned during his training first at Blackpool and later at Tonbridge Wells. Then, in August 1915, Jack and his comrades were sent to France. I deliberately avoided re-reading my review of the last time I heard From your ever-loving son, Jack but one point I do recall making about the letters was how ordinary the contents were. Once he’s in France there are some reference to the war but there were no philosophical reflections on war. Instead, we heard homely letters back to his family, written by a young man who was away from home for the first time and probably bored when not at the front and more scared that he was prepared to admit when he was in the trenches. If he didn’t admit to being scared, I’m sure that was deliberately done so as not to worry the folks back home. Instead, Jack’s letters are fully of a cheery determination to make the best of things and full also of repeated assurances to his parents that life isn’t bad at all. He’s not shy, though, about asking to have things – little extras – sent to him from home. The everyday nature of what is in the correspondence makes it all the more moving.
The music that was interspersed among the readings was adroitly chosen. So, for example, early on, when Jack is doing basic training, we heard again Finzi’s ‘Budmouth Dears’. Was it my imagination, though, or did Joshua Ellicott invest the middle part of the song with a touch more melancholy as compared to his earlier account of it? Haydn Wood’s ‘Roses of Picardy‘ was sung at a point in Jack’s narrative where he’d not long arrived in France. In that context, Wood’s song, sung beautifully and seriously, was not sentimental but very poignant. Simon Lepper segued straight into a piano solo, Frank Bridge’s ‘A Vigil’, for piano left hand. The unlikely juxtaposition worked brilliantly, all the more so because Lepper played Bridge’s piece so sensitively.
Poulenc’s bittersweet ‘Bleuet’, intensely sung, was another apposite choice to illustrate Jack’s time in France. Another French song, Debussy’s ‘Noël des enfants qui n’ont pas de maisons’, was an excellent way to follow Jack’s cheery description of his first Christmas away from home. The impact was all the greater because the song received a darkly dramatic performance. Lepper’s account of the same composer’s ‘Des pas sur la neige’ was an ideal complement.
On 11 August 1916 Jack sent his parents a very brief Battlefield Postcard – all there was time to write – and promised ‘Letter follows’. But it never did. Jack was killed in action the following day in an action that was part of the Battle of the Somme. He was buried on the battlefield but his body was not recovered for proper burial until 1920. His death was illustrated by the bleak sparseness of James MacMillan’s shattering song, ‘The Children’. After that, Ellicott and Lepper found the perfect way to round off this sequence by performing John Ireland’s wistful setting of words by another casualty of the War: Rupert Brooke’s ‘Spring Sorrow’.
3604 Rifleman Ellicott J was one of countless young men whose lives were cruelly cut short by the carnage of the First World War. However, unlike others who fell, he has been commemorated with dignity, affection and pride in this wonderfully evocative sequence of words and music. I was greatly moved when I first experienced From your ever-loving son, Jack and I was very glad to have this second chance to hear it. A life-sized photograph of Jack was placed onstage during the sequence and at the end, as they took their bow, I thought it was very fitting that Joshua Ellicott and Simon Lepper turned towards Jack’s portrait and applauded him and his memory. He deserved nothing less.