You don’t usually expect heroics at Tardebigge’s gentle “Celebrating English Song” summer series, but heroics is what we got last Sunday.
Tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Simon Lepper, such a well-attuned duo, each alert to the other’s nuances, were well launched into an enthralling recital when suddenly one of the most disappointing premieres it has ever been my duty to review during over 40 years came along.
Spence and Lepper worked their socks off to make something of Ed Bennett’s “Poems by Greg Delantly”, a Celebrating English Song commission supported by the Kay Trust, but I doubt there was anyone in the room enthralled by these effortful, contrived settings of poetry which could only have come from a boulevardier intellectual.
Bennett tried it all: monotonous tedious monotones in his opening song, irritating repetition of phrases in later offerings, and, most irritating of all, a lugubrious accumulation of words, going back to the start of the text each time like a children’s memory-game, in a finale whose ending came as blessed relief. I’d have asked for my money back had I commissioned this. I should remove one star, but I won’t, as the entire recital was so accomplished.
Let me speak later about the water in the desert which came afterwards. We had begun with Finzi’s wonderful Farewell to Arms, Spence both assertive in declamation and hymn-like in reflection. Britten’s Who are these Children?, for all the devotion of Spence and Lepper, couldn’t help but be tainted by images of Britten and Peter Pears, all swooping and pouncing on registers.
And so for the balm. Roger Quilter’s Three Shakespeare Songs, rich and genuine, were wonderfully delivered, and then came the jewel of the afternoon, Shakespeare settings by John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, Spence and Lepper moved into torch-song mood, Spence’s fabulous body-language (not least his eyes and smile) conveying every nudge of this treasurable music.