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Seen and Heard Festival Review

Three Choirs Festival: Finzi, Sanders, Ives, Dyson, Venables, Williams, Hold, Roderick Williams (baritone), Ian Burnside (piano), St Mary De Lode Church, Gloucester, 9th August 2004 (AO)


Now in its 277th year, the Three Choirs Festival has been a showcase for the best in English music. For generations, musicians and music lovers have gathered to enjoy music old and new, in a cordial environment, close to the Cotswolds and which inspired so many composers. Elgar, Holst, Howells, Vaughan Williams, and Gerald Finzi were all perennial supporters of the Festival. Often their music was premiered here, and performed in their presence, sometimes conducted by them, too. This recital, in its own way, honours the Festival's traditions. Four composers were present, one of them performing, in a congenial, cordial atmosphere. All songs were from the second half of the 20th century.


Appropriately, Gerald Finzi's most ambitious song cycle, Before and After Summer, started the recital. It is not the easiest cycle to do justice to, for its moods veer from fiercely dramatic to understated delicacy, often within the same song. Roderick Williams showed why he is so highly rated among lovers of English song: he captured each nuance with care, his gorgeously burnished tone giving depth and beauty. It is a voice with stunning power, all the more impressive considering he had to hold it back in the setting of this small, thirteenth century parish church. Williams sang with enthusiasm, taking an almost sensual pleasure in his singing. In Childhood among the Ferns, for example, he coloured the last word "perambulate" with delicious dark tones. In The Self-Unseeing, he sang the surprise ending with palpable frisson. The audience loved it. Strangely, he was rather restrained in the famous Channel Firing, a song which affords numerous opportunities for dramatic characterisation. But no matter, there will be many other Channel Firings in Williams' future. Besides, there were many pleasures of the more subtle sort. I was impressed by Burnside's playing, and the sensitivity with which the piano complemented the voice. Indeed, The Too Short Time, the piano comments on the text more expressively than the voice. The piano weaves its way fulsomely around the voice in He Abjures Love. The voice stops with the phrase "and then, - the Curtain", but the piano adds its wry postscript.


The cycle The Beacon, commemorates the composer C W Orr, who lived at Painswick. The Beacon is an Iron Age fort, on a hill from which there is a spectacular view of "counties five in a wagon wheel". All five songs celebrate the Gloucestershire countryside. One of the songs sets a poem based almost entirely on a recitation of place names, whose innate musicality the composer makes the most of. John Sanders was connected to Gloucester Cathedral most of his adult life, serving as Organist for almost thirty years. He was also associated closely with the Three Choirs Festival, as a conductor, performer and as director. He died only months ago: touchingly, the Festival honoured him this year with a concert of his music. Williams and Burnside performed The Beacon with a lyricism that captured the charm of the settings and their wistful undertones.


Charles Ives is another Three Choirs favourite, represented at this Festival by The Unanswered Question, and at this recital, by three songs, He is There!, On Flanders Fields and Tom Sails Away. There is a recording of Ives himself singing these songs, without a trace of sentimentality, adding additional trenchant comments. He would have, I suspect, would have loved Williams' passionate, stroppy mood of protest. Williams persuaded the audience to shout the refrain in He is there! which they did with un-English alacrity, so totally were they drawn into the spirit. Ives would have beamed approval. Despite his own chorister background, Williams can carry off music like this vividly. He also seems to pick up on Ives quirky phrasing and idiosyncrasies. Burnside managed the tricky changes of direction adroitly, even managing to evoke the sound of a trumpet.


Williams spoke about his fondness for the vocal music of George Dyson, speaking of an interesting "hard edge" beneath the surface, and echoes of Fauré. He should know, for he has been singing many Dyson works, and was also on the recording of Quo Vadis. My own experience with Dyson has been his chamber music, so I picked up on the restrained spareness of the song settings, with passages where the voice floats along, unaccompanied. The feeling of discovery continued with two fetching songs by Ian Venables. A Kiss starts with a meditative introduction on piano, onto which the voice part floats gently. Williams' voice may be powerful enough for the opera stage, but here he sang delicately, as befits a song as lyrical as this. Flying Crooked, to a poem by Robert Graves was a jaunty, witty adventure, Williams and Burnside navigating the jerky rhythms with aplomb.


Then, as Williams joked, "a sorbet". Apart from being acclaimed as a singer, he is well regarded as a composer, and this song was indeed impressive. The composer Adrian Williams wrote a poem after reading an announcement about a lady seconded to the DTLR, a civil service department. It's wildly imaginative, humorous but human, and not satirical. Roderick takes up the mood and adds a setting which switches from mock operatic to affectionate. The piano part buzzes along merrily, like a bumblebee. Aptly, it was followed by a song by Trevor Hold, better known as a writer on English song, but who also composed. Hold's setting of The Angler's Song, from The Compleat Angler is mock-heroic, and slightly over the top, as befits the poem.


To return to the Three Choirs Festival tradition of conviviality, the recital ended with Finzi's Shakespeare settings, published together as Let Us Garlands Bring, in honour of Ralph Vaughan Williams' 70th birthday. These have been described as "Shakespeare in modern dress" because Finzi's setting have a natural, direct freshness. This suits Roderick Williams' approach perfectly. There is nothing coy or precious in his singing, he sings as he feels, without affectation. The words of It was a Lover and His Lass may have been written four hundred years ago, but when Williams sings them, they are as relevant as they would be about any lovers today. If anyone can bring English song onto the world stage, it is Roderick Williams.


 Anne Ozorio




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