“It’s been quite an intense recital” admitted soprano Elizabeth Watts, immediately before she and pianist Audrey Hyland launched into the final section of their programme. To be fair, no-one should have been fooled by the rural setting and tea-and-cakes atmosphere; the annual Celebrating English Song series at Tardebigge has never pulled its punches with repertoire.
Even so, this was a pretty dark programme. Thomas Traherne settings by Finzi and Elizabeth Maconchy could almost have been light relief, had Maconchy’s vocal lines not been so ferociously angular, her tonal language so overcast. Watts’ voice leapt effortlessly over its huge intervals, and Hyland – who’d worked miracles of quiet poetry on the penny-plain keyboard version of Finzi’s Dies Natalis - found light and shade in Maconchy’s unforgiving writing.
Elsewhere there were meditations on death by W.B. Yeats (set by Rebecca Clarke) and Francis Thompson (Frank Bridge), and two separate settings – by Clarke and Elaine Hughes-Jones - of A.E. Housman’s doomy little Eight O’Clock. Hughes-Jones’, the quieter, was the more devastating for it: the eerily still centre of a group of four full-blooded songs by this Malvern-based composer, who stepped up to receive a warm ovation.
Throughout it all, Watts and Hyland responded with absolute commitment. Watt’s voice is so lustrous that it sweetened these bitter pills, whether pealing out at the top of a phrase or holding a long final pianissimo motionless in the air. But when we finally heard them cutting loose in the careless, freewheeling fantasy of Frank Bridge’s So early in the morning, O! it was hard not to wish we’d spent a little less time in the graveyard.