Wednesday 1 March 2017

On Wenlock Edge: Housman's Lads

AE Housman
AE Housman
On Wenlock Edge: Housman's Lads, Butterworth, RVW, Ian Venables; Adam Sullivan, Joseph Padfield, Gavin Roberts, The Accendo Quartet, Kevin Phelan; Song in the City at St Botolph without Bishopsgate
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 27 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Young artists in a programme exploring Housman's poetry

For the second of its Hidden Lives, Secret Loves series for LGBT History Month, Song in the City presented On Wenlock Edge: Housman's Lads in St Botolph without Bishopsgate Hall on Monday 27 February 2017 when Adam Sullivan (tenor), Joseph Padfield (baritone), Gavin Roberts (piano), The Accendo Quartet (Juliette Roos, Gabriel Ng, Alexander McFarlane, Emma Besselaar) and Kevin Phelan (actor), performed a programme of Housman settings by George Butterworth, Ian Venables and RVW including On Wenlock Edge, interspersed with readings from Housman's poems.

Songs from On Wenlock Edge, performed by Adam Sullivan, Gavin Roberts and The Accendo Quartet, threaded their way through the programme whilst Joseph Padfield and Gavin Roberts performed George Butterworth's When I was one and twenty, Look not into my eyes and The lads in their hundreds  from Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad and Ian Venables' Because I liked you better.

Most of the poems (sung and spoken) came from A Shropshire Lad and what was fascinating was hearing how the theme of youth and beauty threaded its way through them, with the spoken texts being somewhat more homo-erotic than those selected by composers. In his later poems Housman was a little more explicit about the homo-erotic nature of some of the thoughts. Housman published Last Poems in 1922 partly so that Moses Jackson (the love of Housman's life) could read them before he died. From this set we heard read The Laws of God and Man. More Poems (published in 1936 by Housman's brother Laurence) we heard read A.J.J (the initials of Moses younger brother who died in 1892) and The colour of his hair (about Oscar Wilde), plus Ian Venables' setting of Because I liked you better.

But it must be understood that Housman's poems are never explicit; personally very reserved to the point of brusqueness, in his poetry Housman never completely lets the emotions loose and, as Virginia Woolf put it the poems deal mainly with 'May, death, lads, Shropshire'. But it is this very expressive repression which proved a gift for composers who brought in music to fill the gap, and in retrospect the repression is emblematic of the way homosexual emotions had to be implied rather than said.

The first song in the programme was Butterworth's When I was one and twenty, with Joseph Padfield displaying a lovely dark baritone voice with an attractive smoky character, though there was occasional sense of pressure at the top of his voice. He had a great feel for the words, really making the Butterworth settings like sung poetry.

In RVW's On Wenlock Edge Adam Sullivan displayed a firm, dark toned voice and gave an impassioned performance, with brilliant playing from the quartet. Placing Sullivan behind the quartet, next to the piano, essentially in the centre of things, helped communication between the performers but meant that the balance favoured the instruments more than might have been ideal.

Padfield made Butterworth's Look not into my eyes nicely intimate, whilst Sullivan brought out the mystical quality of RVW's From fa, from eve and morning. Butterworth's The lads in their hundreds was all the more moving because of Padfield's understated performance. In RVW's Is my team ploughing, Sullivan brought a nice differentiation between the aetherial music for the dead man and the more vigorous for the living, reaching a fabulous noisy climax, and this was followed by characterful account of Oh, when I was in love with you. Sullivan, Roberts and the quartet brought out the mystical quality to RVW's Bredon Hill (emphasising the sense that for Housman, Shropshire was a land of lost content), with a really magical opening.

Ian Venables Because I liked you better from his Songs of Eternity and Sorrow started off hauntingly melancholy and steadily built in power. This was a striking setting, all the more so because Venables treatment of the poem is remarkably different to my own setting of the poem. We finished with a beautifully relaxed performance of Clun, the final song in RVW's On Wenlock Edge. Throughout I was impressed with the sense of colour and fluidity which The Accendo Quartet brought to the music, ably supported by Gavin Roberts' fine piano playing. We were sometimes aware that On Wenlock Edge is a big sing for a young tenor, but Adam Sullivan really brought out the varied character of the songs, shot through with mystical beauty.

Kevin Phelan's readings of the poems were nicely intimate, for some he was sitting amongst the audience giving a sense of sharing something rather than performing.

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