Sunday, 31 May 2015

Roderick Williams Finzi Ludlow English Song Weekend

Two hardy perennials of the English song tradition, Roderick Williams and the English Song Weekend broadcast on BBC Radio 3. The English Song Weekend — how I wish that I could have been in Ludlow to hear it live. At this time of the year, Shropshire is at its most beautiful, verdant with fresh growth and vigour.  The English Song Weekend, founded by JIm Page and the Finzi Friends in 2001, is a festival like no other. Everyone knows each other and welcomes those who share their love for English song, old and new. That was a Finzi principle, embracing the joys of the language, nature and abundant joy. Ludlow itself isn't, strictly speaking, part of the English music heartland, but fits the atmosphere perfectly. It's a lovely old market town which symbolizes so much of what makes England, and the quintessential Englishness of English song.

"When smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off from Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team",

Ivor Gurney, the poet, and also composer, was a townie who probably never drove a plough. Gerald Finzi was the English Gentleman, so perfect he could have been conjured up by Hollywood Casting, yet was very much an outsider by birth. Ralph Vaughan Williams may have been born in Down Ampney but resolutely spent his life in London. Even A E Housman's visions of Shropshire grew from the imagination rather than from lived rural experience. But that's exactly why I love English song. Dreams of "blue remember'd hills" and "the Land of Lost Content" evoke deep and deliciously complex instincts.  A kind of universal Sensucht, as Germans would say.

Roderick Williams is easily the best exponent of English song, ever. His direct, conversational style  communicates meaning without artifice or condescension. In real life, he's as posh as they come, but his personal warmth and intelligence transcend stereotypes. I shall never forget his Last Night of the Proms, where he eschewed cheap gimmicks for Rule, Britannia, and instead chose sincerity, idealism and conviction.  His eyes shone. No jokiness, but absolute faith in meaning  For me, one of the great things about Britain is that anyone can become somebody, hard as it might be. That's what inclusiveness is really all about. I once had the pleasure of telling a UKIP worthy that I, too, am an immigrant.

Williams began his recital with early Vaughan Williams, so early that the relative clumsiness of the settings makes one glad he went to France and found his voice via Ravel.  In contrast, Williams did RVW's Four Last Songs. Divest oneself of notions of  Richard Strauss.  RVW's songs aren't valedictory, but a loose compilation of ideas left unfinished upon the composer's death. Procris is based on a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Menelaus on the Odyssey. the two last poems are more personal .The contemplative mood of Tired suggests a man assessing his past without rancour, and Hands, eyes and heart suggests inward, private emotions. Stylistically, they connect more to early RVW than to his great masterpieces, but reminded me how people in old age revert to their youth.

Williams and Burnside separated early and late RVW with Robert Saxton's Time and the Seasons, which premiered at the Oxford Lieder Festival in 2013, the best Lieder festival in this country.  With its "starlight" minimalism, and delicacy, this set of songs consciously evoked Gerald Finzi for me, specifically the transformational last strophe of Finzi's Channel Firing: when, after the big guns fall silent, "As far inland as Stourton Tower, And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.". The words aren't grammatic, but the music suggests that the meaning goes far beyond mere words. In the silence of the stars, we are at one with something primeval and magical : the soul of England no less, connecting to ancient mysteries.

In honour of Gerald Finzi and his ideals, and of Jim Page, without whose vision the English Song Weekend might not have come about, Williams concluded with Finzi's great song cycle Before and After Summer. Williams has sung them very often. For a change, especially piquant for an audience who knows him and Finzi practically by heart, Williams adopted a gentle Dorset burr, not too heavy or too intrusive, but just enough to remind us that the poems, by Thomas Hardy, are far more sophisticated than pseudo rural pastiche. Finzi's settings  bring out their philosophical depths and symbolism. Again, a reason why English song holds such a very special place in the English cultural psyche. Not bucolic at all! 

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