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S & H Festival Review

"Before and after summer", Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Clarke, Ireland. Brett Polegato (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano) The Assembly Rooms, Ludlow, 6th June, 2004 (AO)

The very concept of this festival grew from Gerald Finzi's belief in the performance of British music. Fittingly then, the weekend should end with a talk by Paul Spicer on Finzi's style, with a concert featuring Finzi's great cycle. Spicer speaks with the insight of a practising musician. Finzi was largely self-taught, learning by experience and listening. He was inspired by Bach, but his foundations were British. He was influenced by the cadences of British poetry, claiming that a text could "choose" its composer by appealing to his creative imagination. Hence vocal lines relate intimately to the spoken word, without embellishment, repetition or melissima. Finzi's emotional impact is pure, clear and direct.

Finzi's affinity with the poems of Thomas Hardy is well known. Neither was a conventional believer, but both sought spirituality through the observation of life, contrasting man's mortality with the forces of time and nature. Despite his happy marriage, Finzi shared Hardy's fatalism and sense of alienation. Vaughan Williams' In the Spring is a setting of a Dorset poet from an earlier generation than Hardy's, but its rustic text bears no relation to the vividness of Hardy's Dorset. Brett Polegato, the Canadian baritone who won the Cardiff singer of the year in 1995, injected colour into the song, but its beauties lie more in the accompaniment, as usual well played by Burnside. Vaughan Williams' The Water Mill is a popular favourite, but it is very much a lesser Die Schöne Müllerin. The poem, by a relative of Adeline Vaughan Williams, inspires in the composer a vaguely Schubertian setting, complete with rolling millstream effects. Tired to a poem by Ursula Vaughn Williams, was altogether more intimate. Polegato sang the word "sleep" with a deep, resonant timbre imbuing the simple song with real tenderness.

Rebecca Clarke studied with Vaughan William's teacher Charles Stanford a few years after he had moved on to Ravel and to greatness. Clarke never achieved much fame, but hearing four of her songs together in the context of Vaughan Williams and Ireland highlighted her abilities. Her The Seal Man, to Masefield, who also inspired Ireland, is particularly masterful. Polegato warmed to this, bringing out the surreal tragedy of the girl who loves a seal and is drowned by love. Clarke's setting is elegiac yet sinister at the same time. She draws a contrast between the horror and the vulnerability of the girl's "little white throat" by changing tone and tempo. Polegato emphasized the terrible line "man, who wasn't a man at all " and his rolling "drowned, drowned" sank to the depths with the piano commenting broodingly. A fascinating song with great potential. This mode seemed to suit Polegato as he sang June Twilight as gloomy tragedy too. The Yeats poems, Down by the Salley Gardens and The Cloths of Heaven have been turned to song many times, but Clarke's versions stand up to scrutiny. Polegato moulded and coloured the pivotal word "because", in "Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams".

Ireland's Masefield song, Sea fever, suited Polegato's robust singing style, as did Ireland's Hardy settings, notably Great Things ("sweet cyder is a great thing"). However, a fairly monochrome interpretation does not bring out the best in a song or in a performer's voice. What is pleasant enough in Ireland needs more in the complex Finzi songs. Before and after summer was Finzi's last Hardy group, and it contains some challenging pieces. Childhood among the ferns, for example, operates on several levels of meaning, the voice and piano part forming a dialogue. Polegato's enunciation was slipping and an imprecise focus in his approach began to take its toll on his ability to bring the music alive. The Self Unseeing is an easier song to characterise, and Polegato portrayed the smiling woman effectively, and the final "But we were looking away!" was sung with meaning.

The mead may be "dripped in montonous green" in Overlooking the River Stour but a little more variation in subtle shades would have been welcome, too. There's nothing monotonous about Channel Firing, that bizarre, subversive vision of the dead rising from their graves to the sound of guns at sea, portending Armageddon. Finzi's writing gives many opportunities for tone painting and switches of emphasis. It would be hard to make this song dull, and Polegato rose to the occasion, using his firm baritone to good effect when singing the words of God. Burnside seemed to evoke a marching rhythm in the piano passage between these verses. Polegato's firmness in "again the guns disturbed the hour" was appropriately militaristic, but the sudden leap to the delicacy and magic of the final "star lit Stone Henge" is tricky to pull off well at the best of times. Polegato was good in the remaining songs, like Amabel, and in Epeisodia in particular there were lovely details, such as when voice and piano shadowed each other "where the footstep falls". Little infelicities like mispronunciation, odd in a native speaker, were absolved by fine dark singing in the last, important verse of He abjures love.

Anne Ozorio


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