Monday, 7 October 2013

Song cycles: The English Poetry and Song Society

The 30th anniversary concert of the English Poetry and Song Society at St. James's Church, Piccadilly on the 4th October 2013 was a pleasant evening of storytelling in song. Soprano Sarah Leonard and baritone Stephen Varcoe provided the voices, supported by Nigel Foster on piano. Together the three brought poetry to life. The programme included song cycles by Benjamin Britten and Ivor Gurney, plus songs by Sulyen R. Caradon (otherwise known as Richard Carder - the concert organiser), Janet Oates, Clive Pollard, Betty Rowe, Raymond Warren and Robert Hugill.

A great supporter of contemporary music, Sarah studied at the Guildhall School of Music and has recently been awarded an honorary doctorate in music from Hull University where she teaches. She has collaborated with composers as diverse as Birtwistle, Boulez, Dusapin, Ferneyhough, Harle, Harvey, Lachenmann, Ligeti and Nyman, and sung with the BBC Singers, Hilliard Ensemble, the Michael Nyman Band, and the Birmingham, London, and San Francisco Symphony.

Stephen Varcoe has performed songs and opera all over the world including Haydn's L'infedeltà delusa and Debussy's Fall of the House of Usher. He teaches singing at the Royal College of Music and has produced more than 150 recordings of songs from Baroque to modern. He gained his PhD in the history and practice of song performance from the University of York.


Nigel Foster studied Piano at the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and has performed all over Europe both as a concert pianist and accompanist. He is the driving force behind the London Song Festival, which you will find reviewed elsewhere on this blog, and amongst his recordings are collections of English songs with Stephen Varcoe.

The concert began with a clarion call by Sarah ‘Let the florid music praise, The flute and the trumpet,’ from ‘On this Island’, words by W. H. Auden (1907-1973) and music by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Vocally and visually mesmerising, her versatility brought out Britten’s skill in finding the different moods of each poem, including an ice cold change in tempo during ‘Now the leaves are falling fast’ and repeated low tones for the traction engine in ‘Nocturn’.

Ivor Gurney’s (1890-1937) ‘Lights out’ (written by Edward Thomas (1878 –1917)) was an atmospheric telling of the loss due the First World War, ending on a tortured ‘Lights out’ before the interval. Clear diction and strong dynamic range brought the scenes to life. After the interval Sarah captured the pride and passion of Gurney’s ‘Seven Sappho Songs’.

The evening ended with Britten's settings of Walter de La Mare’s (1873 –1956) ‘Tit for Tat’, which although written as a teenager was not published until 1968. Sung by Stephen, this song cycle was dark and emotive – ranging from the simple and effective ‘Your ghost where your face was’, to a passionate cry of ‘O ghost draw nearer’.

Between these were sets of songs composed by members of the society. All of the contemporary music continued in the English sound-world ensuring that the programme hung together well. However it is a poetry and song society, and in a neat touch Richard Carder read out the poems before they were sung, so bringing an extra dimension to the concert.

‘The Bugler’ and ‘Bee dance’, composed by Janet Oates, herself a singer, were performed by Stephen and Sarah in turn. ‘The Bugler’ (words by F. W. Harvey (1888-1957) – a friend of Ivor Gurney) was part spoken and part sung, to great effect. ‘Bee dance’ (words by Carol A Duffy (1955-)) had a delightfully evocative skipping, flitting accompaniment to the legato line of the melody, leading to a stinging/ staccato ending.

Sulyen R Caradon (1942-) composed the next two songs – both of which were in memory of his mother. ‘November Blue’ (words by Alice Meynell (1847 – 1922)) and ‘Lelant’ (by E. K. Chambers (1866 – 1954)) were both delicate and melodic.

‘Sea change’ and ‘Anniversary’ were composed Raymond Warren (1928-) to poems by Paul Dehn (1912 –1976). Dehn is also known for his work as on screenplays, writing classics such as ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. ‘Anniversary’ in particular had some nice discordant moments where the vocal line skated over what the piano had to say.

The two pieces by Robert Hugill: ‘Farewell Love’ by Thomas Wyatt (1503 –1542) and ‘Winter Journey’ a setting of words by Rowan Williams (1950-) were sung contiguously. Wyatt is believed to have had an affair with Anne Boleyn for which he was imprisoned, albeit briefly, in the Tower of London. ‘Farewell Love’ was dark and melodic, echoing the earlier Gurney, and making use of Stephen’s high and low range for the ‘farewell’s – the last ‘farewell’ in silence. In ‘Winter journey’ the melody and accompaniment curled around each other with hints of folk.

In a lighter mood Clive Pollard’s ‘Pot and Kettle’, ‘Leisure’ and ‘The cuckoo’, all to words by W. H. Davies (1871–1940) were played for laughs. Betty Roe (1930-) explored outdoor themes with the bluesy ‘The promising gardener’ (words by Marion Lines (1933-2012)) was also light and comedic, but ‘In a garden’ (poem by A.C. Swinburne (1837–1909)) was a lullaby set to a accompaniment of soft rain.

Although quite a long concert the time flew by. A brief comedy duet encore restored the audience to a happier mood after the Britten – and people ran to get their last train home.
review by Hilary Glover

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