[Eric Robson (interviewing Sir Thomas Allen: …Some snooty folk might think this music is beneath them?...]
“… they want their heads examined…it’s really full of wonderful material…Brahms and Schubert and Mahler set folk songs…and these Border ballads and collier songs and everything else here … are as good as anything that exists anywhere in the world of music…”
Sir Thomas Allen
“I grew up with these songs … they’re a rich part of our heritage. They tell of all sorts of things: of tragedy (explosions in the mines), of hardship and poverty and yet there is such humour… we used to sing songs like
Cushie Butterfield and
The Lambton Worm as we slapped paper on the walls… I’ve grown up with it all, it’s all deep within me… [The songs are about] such wonderful colourful characters like the earthy and rather coarse
Cullercoats Fish Lass” Sheila Armstrong
This programme was, for me, the highlight of the 1993 Christmas TV schedules here in the UK. It was soon released in VHS format and I must have almost worn out the tape. Recently a DVD version was reissued and forms the basis of this review.
First of all, for non-UK readers, I should explain that Northumbria is mainly used as a romantic tourist name for the North East of England - the region bordering Scotland, covering Northumberland and Tyne and Wear
. I will confess to a strong personal interest in this programme for I, too, am a North-countryman albeit born in Cumberland over the Pennines to the West of Northumbria. I remember very well singing many of these songs in my childhood; songs like: The Keel Row, The Ash Grove
and Lavender Blue.
I suspect, too, that with the large-scale diasporas from the British Isles over the last two centuries many of these songs are now known world-wide.
The programme begins with David Hallam’s Newcastle Overture
underscoring film of the Northumbrian countryside: pictures of the area’s coastline, its hills and crags, its castles and the City of Newcastle itself. There are frequent aerial views taken at speed and sometimes employing dizzyingly steep angles that can be quite disconcerting. The Overture’s music is often stirring and dramatic and it includes snatches of the folk songs we are to hear later plus the unmistakable influence of Vaughan Williams. The pictures end with views of Durham Cathedral where this concert was staged to mark the 900th
anniversary, in 1993, of the laying of Cathedral’s foundation stone. That’s where this performance was recorded.
Sheila Armstrong, a miner’s daughter, was born in Ashington, Northumberland. A renowned international opera singer, with a career spanning some thirty years, she chose this concert as her last major performance before she retired. Sir Thomas Allen, another local man, was born in Seaham Harbour down from Sunderland in neighbouring County Durham.
The songs are strongly rhythmic and melodic. They span a wide variety of experiences and emotions, hardship and sorrow, love and loss; and include some larger than life characters like Cushie Butterfield (…She’s a big lass and a bonny lass, And she likes her beer…), Cat Gut Jim (…the fiddler, a man of great renown…) and Wor Geordie who lost his Penka. Some verses are sung behind harsh monochrome photos of austere streets, bleak industrial landscapes, pictures of hardy, resilient folk, small vulnerable-looking fishing vessels and desolate shorelines. I will mention just a few. ‘The Trimdon Grange Explosion’ is a heartfelt song, full of pathos about the tragic consequences of an explosion at the mine. The music of “…God protect each lonely widow, and raise each drooping head, Be a father to the orphans, never let them cry for bread ...” is deeply affecting; it must be a strong man who can resist tears standing in his eyes. ‘The Cliffs of Old Tynemouth’ (T’was there with my Alan I walked hand in hand …sweet were the echoes of the dark cliffs above, But oh! sweeter his voice as he murmured his love…) is another lovely song; unforgettable and tenderly romantic. Here mention must be made of conductor David Haslam’s skilful, colourful arrangements; sensitive to the character of these folk songs, each a pearl.
The concert and the rehearsals leading up to it are featured. Sheila Armstrong points out that the songs are demanding of her range requiring her to reach high and low extremes. Both she and Sir Thomas realize that the difficult acoustics of the Cathedral tend to obscure their diction. However, the booklet that accompanies this DVD has the texts of all the songs.
The overall impression is of a celebration of great joy and happiness - and don’t the soloists enjoy themselves. They let themselves go and really animate such songs as the recognized anthem of the area The Blaydon Races
. It ends the concert.
A rare treat, a joy to treasure for all the reasons above. Not only my Recording of the Month
but also one of my Recordings of the Year