Christopher Morley previews three forthcoming musical highlights including Ludlow’s glorious English Song Weekend.
The Welsh Marches will be alive with the sound of English vocal music over the next few days when the fourth triennial Weekend of English Song, promoted by Finzi Friends, takes over Ludlow.
This pretty town, so much at the heart of the epic poem-cycle A Shropshire Lad by AE Housman which has inspired so many composers, seems to breathe the quintessence of English poetry and music, and its attractions draw audiences, performers, writers and critics country-wide to this wonderful borderland country.
The long weekend begins on Thursday with a competition for young composers, before the official opening concert tonight in the gracious, elegant Ludlow Assembly Rooms. Soprano Carolyn Sampson is accompanied by pianist Huw Watkins in the premiere of his Larkin Songs. Their programme also features songs by Delius, Finzi, Britten and Walton.
Carolyn Sampson is an English graduate from the University of Birmingham, as is Diana Moore, both of them performing to great acclaim in presentations from the university’s Department of Music. Ms Moore will be joined by pianist Christopher Gould Friday morning in Interpreting English Song, a lecture-recital exploring how composers respond to the differing nuances of English poetry.
All sorts of intriguing offerings, workshops, talks and recitals, interleave the main events (this is an action-packed, busy weekend), but Friday ends with a major concert in Ludlow Parish Church from the mezzo Elizabeth Watts, accompanied by the pianist Iain Burnside (popular as well for his Radio 3 Sunday morning programme, and artistic director of this weekend), and with the collaboration of violinist Matthew Denton.
Cardiff “Singer of the World” in 2007, Elizabeth Watts steps in after the understandable withdrawal of Ann Murray, following the recent, sudden death of her husband, the great tenor Philip Langridge, himself a wonderful interpreter of English song.
Also replacing Ann Murray is Dame Josephine Barstow, doyenne of vocal performance for more decades than it would be chivalrous to remember – I’ve been enthusiastically there through all of them – who on Saturday morning presides over a masterclass with students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Among the Saturday afternoon events is a recital by the Warwickshire-based baritone Roderick Williams, joined by the Carducci string quartet in a programme of Moeran, Rebecca Clarke and Gerald Finzi. And in the evening comes what promises to be a blockbuster event, Lads in their Hundreds described as “a hard-hitting dramatic interpretation of war, linking songs and poems associated with wartime”. This fully staged theatre piece, devised by Iain Burnside, is performed by 12 Guildhall students.
Sunday in Ludlow begins with a discussion “The Song Recital: Dead or Alive?”, chaired by Iain Burnside and including among the panel the composer and musicologist John Pickard, whose Laurence Binyon setting The Burning of the Leaves will be premiered immediately afterwards as the climax of a recital from the baritone James Rutherford and pianist Simon Lepper.
Guildhall students re-emerge on Sunday afternoon, with a charming programme of songs by Muriel Herbert and Martin Shaw: The Ash-blonde WAAF is waiting Tea. Later in the afternoon they join tenor Andrew Kennedy, Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside for the concluding concert.
Entitled “A Sense of Place”, this programme includes works by local composers: Ivor Gurney (not too far away in Gloucestershire), Vaughan Williams (ditto), as well as one-time Gloucester Cathedral organist John Sanders, Roddy Williams (composer as well as singer), and Ian Venables from Worcester. The entire list of events takes the breath away. There will scarcely be time to sample the culinary delights, let alone the ale, for which Ludlow is famous.
But we are not finished with English song, for soon the much-loved monthly series “Celebrating English Song” in Tardebigge’s airy parish church, near Bromsgrove, will return, bringing a special element to summer Sunday afternoons.
This will be its seventh season, opening with a recital from Marcus Farnsworth, winner of the 2009 Wigmore Hall Song Competition. Iain Burnside, who was on the jury for that occasion, promptly emailed Jennie McGregor-Smith, tireless organiser of Celebrating English Song, with the order “you must ask Marcus Farnsworth to Tardebigge. We’ve all fallen in love with his voice”. And Burnside will in fact be Farnsworth’s accompanist in a programme which is framed by Butterworth’s Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad and Finzi’s Earth and Air and Rain (June 27).
Other visitors are tenor Nicholas Mulroy (July 25), whose programme will celebrate the centenary of the birth of Peter Pears, and the mezzo-soprano Anna Stephany (August 29), including among her offerings From the Diary of Virginia Woolf by Dominick Argento, whose The Andree Expedition made such an impression at Tardebigge a couple of years ago.
English song on a much larger scale can be enjoyed at Birmingham University’s Barber Institute next weekend, when this year’s student-led Summer Festival Music kicks off with the rare chance to see Vaughan Williams’ tragi-comic opera The Poisoned Kiss.
Subtitled “The Empress and the Necromancer”, the opera has the intriguing back-story that Dipsacus, the necromancer, seeks revenge on the Empress Persicaria after she has spurned him for another man.
Having raised his beautiful daughter on poison, he sends her unaware to fall in love with the Empress’s son, Prince Amaryllus. not knowing that her first kiss will be fatal.
The improbable tale is underpinned by waltzes, tangos and mock-jazz numbers – not the kind of score one normally expects from the austere composer.