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Gloucester Music Society - A Recital of English Songs: Roderick Williams (baritone) Andrew West (piano) St. Mary de Lode Church, Gloucester 15.4.2010 (JQ)

Songs by:  Vaughan Williams; Ivor Gurney; John Sanders; Sir Hubert Parry; John Ireland; Herbert Howells; Gerald Finzi.

Ian Venables (b. 1955): The Pine Boughs Past Music Op. 39 (world première)

On this particular Thursday evening millions of people in Britain tuned in to watch the first-ever Prime Ministerial debate on television between the leaders of the three main political parties as part of the General Election campaign. For music lovers in Gloucester, however, there was more pressing business in the shape of a recital by the fine British baritone, Roderick Williams. I think Williams is always well worth hearing but English song is a field in which he particularly excels so I went along to this event with a keen sense of anticipation.

The 2009/10 season is the eightieth season of Gloucester Music Society and they’ve been celebrating with a series of concerts devoted entirely to English music. This recital was the final concert of the season and it included a new song cycle by Ian Venables, which had been specially commissioned by the Society for the occasion.

Williams, who contributed excellent programme notes on every item except the Venables cycle, had clearly planned the recital very carefully and intelligently. Introducing the programme, delightfully, on the night he told us that it would mainly comprise a tour of Gloucestershire, though there were to be some cross-border diversions from time to time. I liked the way some subtle links were made. Thus, Ivor Gurney was a recurring presence during the evening. Again, the first two Gurney songs that we heard were both settings of poems by the Gloucestershire poet, F. W. Harvey. How appropriate, therefore, that these should be followed immediately by a John Sanders setting of another Harvey poem.

John Sanders (1933-2003) was steeped in Gloucester’s musical life, principally as the distinguished organist of the cathedral (1967-1994) and it was a very nice touch, therefore, that Williams included two of his songs, ‘On Painswick Beacon’ and ‘Cotswold Choice’. These songs, which Williams has recorded (SOMMCD 057), are Gloucestershire through and through. Not only is the subject matter the very topography of the county but also the music seems to have the local countryside and its music coursing through its veins. Both are fine songs but ‘Cotswold Choice’ is especially attractive, with its rippling piano part and a lovely, easeful and memorable vocal line. As I type this review I’m listening to Williams’ recording of it and it’s a delightful song.

Ivor Gurney’s songs are much better known, of course, and Williams gave us some choice examples. ‘In Flanders’ is an achingly nostalgic creation, conveying the homesickness of a man at the front in the First World War. Gurney, who had been caught up in the carnage himself, could express that so well, as did Frederick Harvey, whose words he set. Williams sang it quite beautifully. He was just as good, later on, in Gurney’s ‘Severn Meadows’, one of the amazingly rare examples of Gurney setting his own verse. The first half of the recital ended with Gurney’s setting of John Masefield’s ‘Captain Stratton’s Fancy’. I think Peter Warlock’s ebullient setting may have the slightest of edges over Gurney’s but the Gurney song is still a fine one and Williams dispatched it with relish.

Earlier we’d heard four of Parry’s English Lyrics. On the evidence of those examples that I’ve heard previously I’d say Parry’s songs are unfairly neglected – though that’s something one could say of a lot of his music. I was delighted to hear some of them sung by Roderick Williams and he did them proud. I was particularly impressed by ‘Gone were but the winter cold’, which he sang with fine feeling and during which there were some superb quiet high notes to savour.

The second half opened with five songs by Herbert Howells. With the exception of ‘King David’- a wonderful song - and ‘Come sing and dance’,  Howells’s songs receive fairly scant attention but he wrote some very good ones. Here Williams surrounded a central group of three more reflective items with two livelier offerings. He opened with ‘The Muggers Song’, hastening to reassure us that the term mugger refers not to a violent criminal but, rather, to a type of rag and bone merchant once prevalent in the north east of England. I thought this song suffered from too heavy a bass part in the piano, which rather overwhelmed the singer at times. I hasten to say this is not a criticism of Andrew West, whose playing throughout the evening was splendid and extremely supportive of his soloist. I think the fault lies with Howells, who miscalculated on this occasion, I suspect.

The three songs in the middle of the group were more pensive in nature and showed off Williams’s ability to spin a soft, seamless legato line. He and Andrew West distilled a rapt atmosphere in ‘The Valley of Silence’, after which Williams sang ‘When dew is falling’ very beautifully.

And so to The Pine Boughs Past Music, the new cycle by Ian Venables, commissioned by Gloucester Music Society to mark their eightieth anniversary. The première was foreshadowed by John France in an article for MusicWeb International earlier this year. In an extensive programme note the composer related that after a good deal of searching for suitable texts he’d returned to Ivor Gurney, a poet whose words he’s set before. The new cycle contains three of Gurney’s poems and is rounded off with a poem by another Gloucestershire poet, Leonard Clark (1905-1981).

The three selected Gurney poems are all predominantly dark in tone. The composer wrote in his helpfully detailed programme note that the first of them, ‘The Wind’, is regarded as Gurney’s last poem, written in 1929 while he was in the Dartford asylum. Reading the words beforehand, and noting that the opening line is “All night the fierce wind blew” and that the poem contains further images of stormy winds, I had expected similarly stormy music, probably in a fairly quick tempo. However, Venables casts his music in a moderate tempo and the singer is given long melodic lines, which were meat and drink to Roderick Williams. The central section of the song was stronger in tone but, overall, the music was a bit more subdued than I had expected.

The second song, ‘Soft Rain’, sets another late poem. This song too is in moderate tempo and also features extended melodic lines in the vocal part. Again there is an increase in emotional power in the middle of the song before it subsides to a gentle close. This gentleness is highly appropriate to Gurney’s last three lines, which read:

“Here come, in the candle light, soft reminder

Of poetry’s truth, while rain beats softly here

As sleep, or shelter of farms.”

The third song, ‘My heart makes songs on lonely roads’, takes an earlier poem, dating from 1917. It seemed to me that Venables has divided the twelve lines of the poem into three stanzas to create a strophic song, again in moderate tempo. The song builds to a strong emotional climax for Gurney’s last four lines. This was my wife’s favourite song in the cycle.

My own favourite was the final song, the only one which is not a setting of a poem by Gurney himself. Leonard Clark’s poem is entitled ‘In Memoriam Ivor Gurney’. Venables wondered in his note if the verses might have been written on the day of Gurney’s death in 1937 since the poem bears that very date. Venables setting of this elegy to Gurney is a fine one. The song is deeply felt and Williams delivered it with a fine intensity, making this, for me, a moving end to the cycle.

I’m always wary of judging a piece of music on a first hearing. There’s no doubt that Ian Venables has written a set of songs that lie well for the voice and I admired in particular the long melodic lines, which were a feature of the whole cycle. But I wonder if he was well advised to set four poems that are all fairly dark in tone. I was left, perhaps unfairly, with the impression that the cycle, for all its merits, is somewhat lacking in variety. Four songs, all in slow or moderate tempo and, it seemed, exploiting a relatively narrow vocal range, didn’t offer a great deal of contrast to the listener. If Venables had chosen just one poem that allowed him to write music in a quicker tempo and in a lighter vein I wonder if the impact of the other songs might actually have increased. I’d like to hear the cycle again, though. As for the performance, it is hard to think that the songs could have received more compelling advocacy than that of Roderick Williams and Andrew West. The composer, who was present and who was greeted with warm applause, must have been delighted to hear his songs so well served at their first hearing.

After the Venables,  Roderick Williams and Andrew West rounded off their programme by performing three songs from Finzi’s cycle Let us Garlands Bring. These songs rather confirmed to me what I thought had been lacking in the Venables cycle, namely variety of mood, melody and rhythm. Williams gave us two lively songs, the delicious ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘It was a lover and his lass.’ This last song made for an irresistible end to the published programme and Williams conveyed great enjoyment of the music, not just through his voice but also through his facial expressions and body language. In between we heard ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’. In my opinion this is one of the greatest of all English songs and Williams gave a superb performance of it. As so often during this recital, his legato line was a thing at which to marvel and he was responsive to every nuance of Finzi’s music, as was Andrew West, who weighted the piano part perfectly.

An encore was inevitable and we were treated to Vaughan Williams’s ‘Linden Lea’. This lovely performance was an excellent example of art concealing art. Williams made it sound so easy and natural; the song flowed beautifully. Yet the success of the performance was founded on a completely secure technique. Just one example of this was the exquisite high note on the word “bubbling” in the first stanza.

Roderick Williams can be heard again in recital in this same church on 15th August as part of this year’s Three Choirs Festival. He’ll be singing songs by Butterworth, Finzi, Gurney and Moeran and I believe he’ll also give a repeat performance of the Venables cycle. That recital is something to which I’m looking forward very much – though the prospect of him singing the role of St Peter in Elgar’s The Kingdom earlier in the Festival is even more enticing. (See Three Choirs Festival website for details.)

For now, this stimulating and hugely enjoyable recital rounded off the eightieth season of Gloucester Music Society in fine style.


John Quinn


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