Wednesday 13 July 2016

Songs of the Somme

Songs of the Somme - London English Song Festival
Songs of the Somme Gurney, Butterworth, Kelly, Sanderson, Novello, Von Tilzer, Wood; Simon Callow, Katie Bray, Nicky Spence, Nicholas Merryweather, William Vann; London English Song Festival at Wilton's Music Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 12 2016
Star rating: 4.5

A powerful evocation in music, text and film of the tragedy of the Battle of the Somme

Having delighted us last year with the complete songs of RVW, pianist William Vann's London English Song Festival has returned with a rather different project. Songs of the Somme at Wilton's Music Hall (12 July 2016) commemorated the Battle of the Somme with a sequence of songs and readings performed by mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, tenor Nicky Spence, baritone Nicholas Merryweather and actor Simon Callow with William Vann at the piano. The sequence included songs by George Butterworth, Frederick Septimus Kelly, Wilfred Ernest Sanderson, Ivor Gurney, Ivor Novello, Albert Von Tilzer and Haydn Wood, along with readings from Ivor Gurney, Siegfried Sassoon, Aimee Byng Scott, Theresa Hooley, and May Wedderburn Cannan. The event started with footage from the film The Battle of the Somme presented in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum.

The selection of songs by those who fought in the battle not only included those of Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth, but also the lesser known Frederick Septimus Kelly, and there were also the popular songs of the day, ending of course with Haydn Wood's Roses of Picardy. Similarly the readings varied from Siegfried Sassoon's poems and diary entries, some very harrowing, to Ivor Gurney's poems and poems by female poets whose work is now not so well known.

The songs and readings were presented as a dramatised sequence rather than a simple concert, giving them something of a context. It started with the singers in simple concert format, with Nicholas Merryweather giving an intense account of Butterworth's Loveliest of Trees, Nicky Spence singin Frederick Septumus Kelly's rather more conventional Shall I caompare thee and Katie Bray in the popular song God be with our boys tonight by Wilfred Ernest Sanderson, along with Simon Callow reading Gurney's Maisemore.
Then during Callow's reading of Before the Battle, the singers and William Vann put on khaki raincoats and tin hats, evoking the standard war issue, and the sequence of songs became something more. By the simple act of rolling a cigarette, and sharing it, the two men made songs like Butterworth's On the idle hill of summer or With rue my heart is laden seem like snatched moments of reflection remembering life before the war, whilst Gurney's Even such is time and In Flanders were like direct comment. Katie Bray performed two of the readings, those by female poets, along with Ivor Gurney's setting of John Masefield's By a bierside, a poem which ends with the phrase 'It is most grand to die' yet Gurney's setting left you most unsure of those sentiments. The conclusion of this sequence was Simon Callow reading Ivor Gurney's harrowing poem Requiem.

Then the hats and coats came off and the final sequence moved to three more popular songs, along with May Wedderburn Cannan's poem Since they have died. Katie Bray sang Ivor Novello's Keep the home fires burning and Albert Von Tilzer's Au revoir, but not good-bye, soldier boy whilst Nicky Spence start off Haydn Wood's Roses of Picardy before everyone joined in (including the audience).

The performances were uniformly excellent, and the fact that the singers were performing from memory meant that there was an added directness to their performances. I would perhaps have preferred it if Nicholas Merryweather's performance had used a little less received pronunciation and been a little more colloquial, but he had had the knack of bringing out the vividness of the Housman texts, really making the songs seem to be sung poetry. Nicky Spence has the ability to make a song seem as if it is being sung directly to you, something which really counted in this repertoire. Katie Bray moved effortlessly from the sombre intensity of Gurney's By a bierside to the more popular songs, and all showed that the music by Ivor Novello and Haydn Wood, if treated seriously, stands up against the best.

There was no need of printed texts, all three singers diction was superb as each brought out not only the sense of the words, but that wonderful combination of poetry and music.

The evening lasted something under an hour, an intense and thought provoking one, particularly the juxtaposition of some of the powerful imagery and descriptions in the readings (masterfully given by Simon Callow) with the more lyrical songs. Songs of the Somme is being repeated at Wilton's Music Hall tonight (13 July 2016), but I hope that we may be able to hear it again.

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