By John Gough
The second concert of this summer’s Celebrating English Song festival featured an ingeniously devised programme of words and music. This series has never pulled its punches with repertoire, and here we moved away from the Golden Age of English song to hear mainly contemporary works written within the last five years or so.
Opus Anglicanum consists of five men singing unaccompanied and a narrator, and this concert showed enormous intelligence and flair in the range of its sources, and the quality of the works chosen, nearly all of which were commissioned by the group.
Martin Bussey’s ‘Albion’, commissioned by this year’s festival was not about national identity in any political sense (as might be assumed in the current political climate) but more a Blakean concept of Britishness. A jigsaw of texts drawn from classic English sources provided a structure of fire, air, wind and water as the opening tocsin “England, awake, awake” recurred as a refrain between lyrical vocal lines and sometimes sensuous, sometimes crunchy harmonies until the lilting and repetitive ‘Sweet Thames’ brought the piece to a beautifully consonant close.
Alongside uniquely individual pieces by Howard Skempton, Diana Burrell, and Judith Bingham, Sally Beamish’s ‘Sea Psalm’ made a very strong impression. She has not shrunk from setting harrowing and traumatic documentary material to music in the past, and the sea is a pitiless presence and metaphor in several of her works. The narrator Zeb Soanes came into his own here in this recounting of a WWII naval accident in which a ship was cut in two, with the loss of many lives, told through the words of the sole surviving officer.
This engrossing, indeed overwhelming piece ends with the audience invited to join in the concluding hymn ‘For those in peril on the sea’ – but many of us were so incapacitated by emotion that we were unable to do so.
The concert ended with further hope for the future, a ‘Fantasia on English Children’s Songs’ by Owain Park, who at the age of 22 must have heard these songs rather more recently than many of us in the audience. Opening and closing with sophisticated textures, a collage of first lines against a sort of dream background of colour, it was idiosyncratic yet immediately engaging - like the whole of this superbly constructed and performed programme.