Saturday 5 April 2014

A Soldier's Tale at the Barnes Festival

St Mary's Church, Barnes
St Mary's Church, Barnes
The second Barnes Music Festival ran for two weeks from 22 March to 6 April with a theme marking the 80th Anniversary of the death of Elgar, Delius and Holst. I caught up with the festival on Friday 4 April, attending a lunch-time recital at St Mary's Church, Barnes. The 12th century church was re-built after a fire in 1978 and the re-configured interior, architect Edward Cullinan, offers a fine open space ideal for concerts.

Christopher Foster
Christopher Foster
Bass-baritone Christopher Foster and pianist Audrey Hyland performed their programme, A Soldier's Tale which wove 20th century songs into a poetic narrative sequence which told the notional story of a young man becoming a soldier. It was perhaps ironic that a recital about war should have a protagonist who had been in the wars himself. Foster came onto the platform bearing a flask of hot tea and announced himself as having been ill. The atmosphere of the recital was relaxed and Foster gave a fine performance, but it was clear that his voice did not always do what was wanted.

They opened with a group of seven Housman settings by Arthur Somervell, Butterworth and CW Orr, starting with Somervell's Loveliest of trees and ending with Somervell's Into my heart an air that kills which is thematically linked to the first song. Housman's poetry is very much related to the Boer War, but the composers of these songs found his sentiments fitted exactly with their view of the First World War. For me the outstanding song of this group was Butterworth's The lads in their hundreds, a poignant poem in a very fine settings. Somervell's There pass the careless people and White in the moon the long road lies both had dark-tinged complexities to them, whilst CW Orr's Along the Field seemed to have some French influences in its chromatic harmony. Butterworth's lovely On the idle hill of Summer started drowsily evocative and then got more complex.

But the atmosphere was not all nostalgic remembrance.  Foster and Hyland interspersed the programme with lively popular songs from the time such as I don't want to be a soldier and Goodbye-ee (some coming, I suspect, from Oh What a Lovely War). With their saucy words and strong sentiments, they gave a nice contrast to the poets' nostalgia and brought out the grim humour that I remember from my grand-father's own stories of life in the trenches.

Then as our soldier goes to the front, the programme got more varied. Frank Bridge's Where she lies asleep (setting Mar E Coleridge) evoked the hypnotic beauty of dreams of home whilst Armstrong Gibb's curious, salutary tale Old Wine in New Bottles satirised over indulgence. This latter was contrasted with a popular song (to the tune of Abide with me) about the lack of beer! Gorecki's Sacred Song No. 2 (sung in Polish) was an interesting interloper, followed by Ivor Gurney's In Flanders which was simply one of the best songs in the programme. Gerald Finzi's Channel Firing was another curious tale, this time an eerie one of the guns across the channel wakening the dead before their time.

Francis Poulenc's Bleuet (setting Apollinaire) brought our soldier home. The placing of the song showed the real strength of the programme. The song is about a young soldier who has survived and seen far too much death,  and for the first time I was able to appreciate Apollinaire's words in context.  Hanns Eisler's devastatingly downbeat setting of Brecht came next; Die Heimkehr (The Homecoming) made it clear that despite the words, there will be no peace. Finally Poulenc's setting of Charles D'Orleans Priez pour Paix, again the context adding considerably to the way the song came over to form a profoundly moving finish.

This was a very powerful programme and I do hope to catch Foster and Hylands again when Foster is fully on form. They did treat us to an encore, a delightful (and very funny) performance of Noel Coward's Could you please oblige us with a Bren gun!

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