Friday, 19 June 2015

The Western Playland (and of Sorrow)

Ivor Gurney
Ivor Gurney
On Wednesday 17 June 2015, I heard my third setting of AE Housman’s Is my team ploughing? in less than two weeks. Having already heard both RVW and George Butterworth’s settings (sung by Nicky Spence and by Johnny Herford), I caught up with Ivor Gurney' setting. At an afternoon concert at the Royal College of Music the young baritone Mark Nathan performed Ivor Gurney’s setting of the poem as part of a complete performance of Ivor Gurney’s song cycle The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) which formed part of the programme for Mark Nathan’s final recital as part of his degree at the college. 

Mark Nathan
Mark Nathan
Accompanied by Paul McKenzie, Mark Nathan gave a programme of songs loosely themed around war. They started with the premiere of Paul McKenzie’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, and then moved on to two of Hugo Wolf’s Morike-Lieder before they were joined by a string quartet made up of Wilford Goh, Jessica Coleman, Anastasia Sofina, and Andrew Harsely, to perform the Gurney cycle.

After Ivor Gurney had heard RVW’s On Wenlock Edge in 1919, he was impressed enough to write his own song cycle setting AE Houseman for the same forces, tenor, piano and string quartet. The cycle was Ludlow and Teme, and the work was met with an enthusiastic reception, so Gurney decided to follow the cycle up with another one. This time setting AE Housman for baritone, piano and string quartet, combining new songs with re-workings of songs he had already written. The cycle did not seem to meet with the same success as the previous one. It had its first performance at the Royal College of Music in 1920, and a manuscript exists in the RCM archive, and it finally reached publication in 1926 by which time Ivor Gurney was already in a mental institution. The two versions have significant differences, and Mark Nathan used a recent edition which takes elements of both. What is interesting about the cycle is the way that Gurney’s use of tonality is far more unstable than in his earlier music and some passages are almost Bergian. In fact, chatting to Mark after the recital he was saying that it is a work which does rather polarise people with some not liking the work at all. It is a fascinating cycle and certainly would seem to be worth more of a regular airing.

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