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Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival

A.E. Housman  by William Rothenstein sanguine and black chalk, 1906 NPG 3873 © National Portrait Gallery, London
A.E. Housman by William Rothenstein
sanguine and black chalk, 1906 NPG 3873
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Housman's Myth Making, RVW: On Wenlock Edge, Music of Ancient Greece; Jennifer Ingleheart, Daniel Norman, the Brodsky Quartet, Sholto Kynoch, Armand D'Angour; Oxford Lieder Festival at St John's College, Oxford
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new film to accompany live performance of RVW's Housman song-cycle, along with talks on Housman and on music in Ancient Greece

The afternoon events at the Oxford Lieder Festival on Sunday 20 October 2019 centred around A.E. Housman and the Ancient Greeks. At St John's College, Oxford, Housman's old college, we heard Jennifer Ingleheart, professor of Latin at Durham University, talking about Housman's Myth Making. Then tenor Daniel Norman, the Brodsky Quartet and pianist Sholto Kynoch performed Ralph Vaughan Williams' A.E. Housman setting On Wenlock Edge, with a new film by Jeremy Hamway-Bidgood. Then Armand D'Angour, Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Jesus College, Oxford, talked about Music in Ancient Greece.


Jennifer Ingleheart's talk centred on the use of Classical myth in Housman's poetry. Central to this was the relationship between Housman the Professor of Latin at Cambridge and Housman the poet, two personas that Housman sought to persuade people were separate, but which Ingleheart argued overlapped. She presented examples of what she termed Housman's self-mythologising in trying to convince people that the poet and the professor did not overlap. She then proceeded to provide fascinating examples of Housman's use of myth in his poetry, often subtle and very specific references.

Prior to the performance of RVW's On Wenlock Edge, Daniel Norman, the Brodsky Quartet and Sholto Kynoch performed a number of pieces to lead into it. The first group illustrated RVW's influential forbears with a poignant account of William Cornysh's Ah Robin, performed by Norman with just viola and cello accompaniment, a string quartet version of Thomas Tallis' Third Tune for Archbishop Parker's Psalter (the tune on which RVW's Tallis Fantasia is based) and Orlando Gibbons' madrigal The Silver Swan in a very effective ersion for Daniel Norman's high tenor and quartet.


Jeremy Hamway-Bidgood - On Wenlock Edge
Jeremy Hamway-Bidgood - On Wenlock Edge
Then came a group which included songs by Michael Berkeley and Howard Skempton commissioned by the A.E. Housman Society to accompany On Wenlock Edge, and a song by RVW's teacher Sir Hubert Parry.

Michael Berkeley's Housman setting Grenadier had hints of folk song about its melody, but the spare string quartet accompaniment took it into a different work. Hubert Parry's To Lucasta, On Going to the Wars, performed by Norman and Kynoch, was rather lovely, romantic but with some classical restraint. Howard Skempton's Housman setting, Into My Heart and Air the Kills for tenor, piano and quartet, was based around a fascinatingly sinuous melody. Finally came Gerald Finzi's Hardy setting The Dance Continued, bringing the first half to a poignant end.

Jeremy Hamway-Bidgood is both a film maker and puppeteer and his evocative new film, in shades of grey, used paper cut out puppets to tell its story. Hamway-Bidgood had woven a story around the six disparate songs in On Wenlock Edge. Two young men in search of work, a farm, a farmer's daughter, love for the daughter, an intimate relation between the men, war, one is lost, the other comforts the girl, leaves her, all shot through with the memories of the man, now old and living in London, complete with a characterful dog. It was a poignant tale, effectively told, and brought out themes in On Wenlock Edge but at times the story telling and the visuals were so strong that you tended to slide over details in the music and concentrate on visuals. The film was live edited by Hamway-Bidgood so that it fitted the performance, rather than the performers having to use a click track.

Whilst the audience seemed typical of the Oxford Lieder Festival, you felt that the project had the possibility of appealing to a young and wider audience, one less familiar with the genre. In fact, D. and I rather regretted that we did not think about bringing his nine-year-old niece, who is musical.

On Wenlock Edge received a fine, dramatic performance. Daniel Norman is very much a lyric tenor, with a forward, bright sound, who brought out the words well. Just occasionally you felt that perhaps his voice was not quite on form [I understand he was recovering from a cold, and he is also appearing in Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus at ENO, so has not been unbusy]. He was well partnered by Sholto Kynoch and the Brodsky Quartet, there were some lovely aetherial textures and fine moments of drama.

Afterwards Armand D'Angour described his researches into the music of the Ancient Greece. It seems we know far more about this than we might have thought, and his lecture described how he was able to reconstruct performing versions of the surviving pieces including a chorus from Euripides' Orestes. And his lecture concluded with a video of a group of Greek scholars performing his reconstructions [see also D'Angour's film on YouTube]. An intriguing glimpse into a different world. It is always difficult to assess such reconstructions, but the music seemed to have links with such early pre-classical music as Byzantine and early Roman chant.



Elsewhere on this blog
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freisch├╝tz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 (★★) - my opera review
  • A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta (★★) - concert review
  • He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle  - interview
  • The Outsiders Fight Back: London Song Festival's imaginative commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots (★★★) - concert review
  • Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume II , the Sixteen on CORO (★★) - Cd review
  • A Day of the Dead at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Doric String Quartet, Thomas Oliemans, Malcolm Martineau, Prof. Helen Swift - concert review
  • Intimations of mortality: A Young Man's Exhortation to Boyhood's End at Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • A work of scholarship and a fine performance: Academy of Ancient Music's new recording of Handel's Brockes Passion (★★★) - CD review
  • A barren emotional landscape barely disguised by the production’s kitsch fairy-tale opulence: Turandot, Met Live in HD (★½) - opera review
  • Bringing a rarity alive: Verdi's Un giorno di regno from Chelsea Opera Group (★★) - opera review
  • Voices in the Wilderness: cellist Raphael Wallfisch on his series of cello concertos by exiled Jewish composers - interview
  • The Song of Love: songs & duets by Vaughan Williams from Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams, William Vann (★★) - CD review
  • Will put a smile on your face: Vivaldi's L'estro armonico in new versions from Armoniosa  (★★) - CD review
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