United States ‘Beginnings, Middles, and Ends’ – Remembering: Dominic Armstrong (tenor), Joshua Conyers (baritone), Michael Brofman, Brent Funderburk (piano). Brooklyn Art Song Society, First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, Brooklyn, 5.11.2021. (RP)
Finzi – A Young Man’s Exhortation, Op.14
Vaughan Williams – Songs of Travel
The Brooklyn Art Song Society ushered in autumn with the songs of two quintessential English composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Gerard Finzi (1901-1956). Vaughn Williams’s Songs of Travel predates Finzi’s A Young Man’s Exhortation by nearly three decades, but both composers, while still young men, chose poems that celebrate youth with all its vigor and lustiness, but also loss and the inevitable passage of time. No songs could have better captured the mood of a city as the first cold snap drove outdoor diners indoors, and quiet reigned where just a few short days ago the streets were full of life.
In A Young Man’s Exhortation, Finzi set poems by Thomas Hardy, a poet with whose words and sentiments the composer had a special affinity. This rare relationship between composer and poets is generally regarded as being on par with that of Schumann and Heine or Wolf and Mörike. In all, Finzi set over 50 of Hardy’s poems; six of his nine song cycles are to Hardy’s poems.
Composed between 1926-29 and published in 1933 as Op.14 for tenor and piano, A Young Man’s Exhortation is Finzi’s only true song cycle, although he didn’t refer to it as such. He divided the cycle into halves of five songs and included a subtitle for each, taken from the Latin version of the Bible which, in the King James Version, reads: ‘In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up’ and ‘in the evening it is cut down, and withereth’.
Dominic Armstrong brought a master’s touch to the songs, his gleaming tenor at one with the youthful exuberance of the first five songs. Particularly endearing was the eagerness with which he sang of girls as fresh as peaches in ‘Budmouth Dears’; and the lightness and sweetness in his voice in ‘The Comet at Yell’ham’, which the poet muses will surely pass again, but not on the sweet form of a girl that he fancies. As the songs became more reflective, so Armstrong’s voice became more burnished.
Finzi’s piano parts are intricately bound with his setting of the text, and Michael Brofman, BASS’s artistic director, captured the fleeting emotions of Hardy’s poems as deftly as did Armstrong. Of particular beauty was the depiction of the sparkle and vastness of the night sky in ‘The Comet at Yell’ham’.
For Songs of Travel, Vaughan Williams set nine poems from Robert Lewis Stevenson’s 1896 Songs of Travel and Other Verses, a book of poetry in which the author explores his unquenchable thirst for travel and adventure. Vaughan Williams composed the cycle in 1904, just as his personal musical voice was emerging. The songs, which were immensely popular with both audiences and musicians, also mark a significant step in the evolution of the popular Edwardian parlor song towards the English art song which flourished in twentieth-century England.
In Songs of Travel, Vaughan Williams set to music a young man’s quest for love and his reluctance to pursue it. ‘Youth and love’ sums up his dilemma: love and a settled life or the freedom to wander. Perhaps the loveliest of the songs is ‘Whither must I wander?’, in which the poet sings of long-ago memories of childhood and the comforts of home and family. The final and most popular song of the cycle, ‘Bright is the ring of words’, finds the wanderer, old and musing on death, but comforted that his songs will outlive him.
Baritone Joshua Conyers has a voice, there’s no doubt about that. It is hard to take the full measure of such an instrument in the intimate surroundings of a church hall with very live acoustics, but its power and beauty left one gobsmacked. Conyers’s artistry shows through in his elegant phrasings, subtle dynamic variations and, especially, the judicious use of his beautiful head voice. Conyers’ narrative gifts were best displayed in ‘Whither must I wander’, while ‘Bright is the ring of words’ rang out like the tolling of a bell, which ended quietly as he sang tenderly of a lover and his maid remembering the songs of yore, which the wanderer had sung.
Equally adept at expressing emotion, as well as the joy of tromping on the open road, was pianist Brent Funderburk. As with Brofman, the beauties of the night in ‘The infinite shining heavens’ seemed to bring out a special beauty and sparkle in his playing. Vaughan Williams brought his cycle to an end with a piano postlude that quotes the melody of ‘Bright is the ring of words’. Could have there been anything lovelier to end this recital?
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