Friday 26 October 2018

A walk with Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney
Ivor Gurney
A walk with Ivor Gurney - Judith Bingham, Gurney, Howells, Elgar, Parry, Schoenberg; Dame Sarah Connolly, Tenebrae, Nigel Short; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Judith Bingham's evokes Ivor Gurney's Gloucestershire in a programme themed around the composer

Judith Bingham's A walk with Ivor Gurney was commissioned by the choir Tenebrae and performed by them, with mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly, at Gloucester Cathedral in 2013 at a concert to raise money for the Ivor Gurney window in the cathedral. It is a substantial piece for solo mezzo-soprano and choir, and as such provides something of a challenge to programmers when it comes to surrounding it with suitable repertoire.

As part of Sarah Connolly's residency at the Wigmore Hall, she joined with Tenebrae, conductor Nigel Short, to perform Judith Bingham's A walk with Ivor Gurney on Wednesday 24 October 2018, at a concert which sought to evoke Gurney's connection with the Gloucestershire landscape via his musical connections. So we had songs by Gurney, sung by Sarah Connolly with Eugene Asti at the piano, By a bierside, In Flanders and Sleep, Elgar's anthem They are at rest (dating from 1909), Herbert Howells' Take him, earth for cherishing and Gurney's own anthem Since I believe in God the Father Almighty (from 1925). In the second half we had the Songs of Farewell by Hubert Parry, who along with Stanford was a profound influence on the young British composers. The programme finished with another work from the same period, but one across the divide, Arnold Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden.

Elgar's part-song-like They are at rest sets works by Cardinal Newman, it is a beautifully crafted piece with harmonies very redolent of Elgar despite the work's apparent simplicity. Ivor Gurney's 1925 setting of a poem by Robert Bridges, Since I believe in God the Father Almighty was remarkable for the free-thinking agnosticism of the text. It was rather a stark piece, with strong and very distinct harmonies which created an effect which was not quite comfortable.

We continued with Gurney with a pair of wonderfully direct and deeply felt performances of songs, By a bierside and In Flanders, from Sarah Connolly and Eugene Asti. The combination of clear words and strongly shaped tone made a strong impression.

Judith Bingham's A walk with Ivor Gurney takes Gurney's own walks through the Gloucester countryside as its inspiration by setting a sequence of extracts from Gurney's own poems.
The substantial solo mezzo-soprano role becomes the spirit of the countryside, aided by a female chorus. The male chorus, off stage, bring out other links in Gurney's writings by singing settings of Roman tomb inscriptions from Gloucestershire (in Latin), as Gurney frequently comes back to references to the Romans in his poetry. The mezzo-soprano part was a beautifully fluid arioso, sung with flowing expressivity by Sarah Connolly with the women of the choir providing support and colour. This female lyricism was contrasted with the distant (from the Wigmore Hall foyer) sound of the men singing Bingham's strong harmonies in her settings of the Roman Latin. The work is very specific, yet also evocative and with a great sense of place.

Connolly followed this with a final Gurney song, the profoundly lovely Sleep and then we finished with Herbert Howells 1964 anthem Take him Lord, for cherishing which linked to the programme in two ways. First, it was by Gurney's friend, colleague and contemporary and secondly it sets Helen Waddell's beautiful English version of Latin by the Roman poet Prudentius.

In the second half we stayed in the same place in time, yet took a step back as Parry's Songs of Farewell have such a retrospective feel. There is the sense of a summation of Parry's art, rooted as it was in admiration for Brahms, the idea of him looking back thanks to his own illness and the sense of loss caused by the loss of so many friends and colleagues as a result of the war.

Tenebrae used a choir of 20 singers, completely understandable in a work which goes into eight parts, but such was the choir's attention to dynamic and to Nigel Short's impassioned conducting, that the most powerful moments were possible rather too loud for comfort in the hall. Thankfully, Tenebrae brought a fine attention to detail to the piece and we had magical quietness too. The opening movement gave a good idea of the group's approach, tempos were flowing yet there was as strong ebb and flow, and the detail of the words was highlighted in the music. This was a very flexible performance, which moved quickly from one emotion to another, and Short really brought out the contrasts whether it be that of dynamic, style or speed. It was an engrossing and riveting performance, and wonderfully evocative of the words.

Frankly, I would have been happy if the programme had finished there. The inclusion of Schoenberg would have horrified and puzzled Parry, and Gurney too. Both Parry and Gurney idolised Brahms whilst Schoenberg hated him. Yet Schoenberg was a combatant too, fighting in the same war as Gurney, so there was strange apt-ness. Friede auf Erden is tricky piece, written at the extremes of tonality and very challenging for singers (I have sung the work twice and have the scars to prove it). Tenebrae made light of the difficulty, not only giving us the notes but making Schoenberg's music flow with Romantic ease, as if it was meant to be. Like the moments in the Parry, the climaxes were truly shattering, and the whole was thrilling.

We were treated to an encore, Holy is the true light by the young composer Owain Park, who sings in the choir.

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