Wednesday 16 October 2019

Intimations of mortality: A Young Man's Exhortation to Boyhood's End

Ben Johnson (Photo Chris Gloag)
Ben Johnson (Photo Chris Gloag)
Michael Tippett Boyhood's End, Gerald Finzi A young Man's Exhortation; Ben Johnson, Roger Vignoles; Oxford Lieder Festival at the Holywell Music Room
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Ecstatic early Tippett and the lyric melancholy of Finzi's Hardy settings contrasted in this lunchtime recital

The theme of this year's Oxford Lieder Festival is Tales of the Beyond and Tuesday was a Day of the Dead. Amidst the other concerts, talk and cemetery visit around that theme, the lunchtime recital featured two 20th century British songs recitals which view boyhood from old age and the mortality to come.

At the Oxford Lieder Festival lunchtime recital on 15 October 2019 at Holywell Music Room, tenor Ben Johnson and pianist Roger Vignoles performed Michael Tippett's 1943 cantata, Boyhood's End and Gerald Finzi's A Young Man's Exhortation.

The two cycles make a fascinating pairing, both set Victorian writers born in the 1840s (Tippett sets William Henry Hudson and Finzi sets Thomas Hardy). Finzi's cycle was composed in 1933 (though started in the late 1920), just ten years before Tippett's cantata, and Tippett was born in 1905 just four years after Finzi. Yet Boyhood's End seems to belong to an entirely different generation to A Young Man's Exhortation. Whilst the two works have a lot in common, Finzi's cycle looks back fondly to the music of Vaughan Williams and Holst whilst Tippett's writing is full of the energetic cross rhythms which suggest Tippett's interest in jazz as well as early English music. And it is to Purcell whom Tippett's turned for the structure of the piece, deliberately turning his back on the English pastoralism of Vaughan Williams and Holst. Finzi would die in 1958, whilst Tippett, a late developer in terms of his compositional career, would only crown his early ecstatic phase of composition with his opera A Midsummer Marriage in 1955, and would remain compositionally active until the 1990s.

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten commissioned Boyhood's End from Michael Tippett when they returned from the USA in 1943. The four movements set texts by the 19th century author, naturalist and ornithologist W.H. Hudson. Tippett uses the structure of a Purcellian cantata for the piece, creating a sequence of recitatives, arias, and ariosos, but woven into its textures is Tippett's fascination with multiple cross rhythms and the piano does not so much accompany as compliment and contrast to the voice, providing additional lines which weave in around the voice. Tippett's writing here is frequently rhapsodic and ecstatic, and the work must have presented a fearsome challenge to Britten and Pears, who performed the work in 1943. But Britten returned the compliment, and his first canticle My Beloved is Mine, written two years later, is the closest he ever came to Tippett's style of writing.

In the opening movement of Boyhood's End we could appreciate the crisp rhythms in Roger Vignoles' handling of the dazzling piano writing, which complemented Ben Johnson's lovely free and open tone in Tippett's ecstatic vocal line. Much of the vocal writing in the cantata seems to lead to the ecstatic music in works like A Midsummer Marriage. Tippett's response to the magic of W.H. Hudson's evocations of his childhood was to create a sort of rhapsodic, ecstasy which perfectly captures a series of moments. Whilst Johnson was vibrant in the vocal rhapsodies, his words were good too so that he captured well the combination of music and text. To Climb Trees seemed to turn darker, with some more intimate, unaccompanied moments for the voice, whilst To Ride at Noon had a remarkable number of words to fit into its perky music, something Johnson did well, yet the end is sudden and striking with a postlude which leads directly to To Lie on My Back with its clear sense of old age looking back. And it was in this movement where we go the most sense of the mystical element in Tippett's music, with the magical evocation of 'floating in that immense shining void' and Johnson's long floated high concluding note.

In A Young Man's Exhortation, Finzi sets a sequence of ten poems by Thomas Hardy, a poet of whom Finzi seems to have been very fond. There is no narrative, but an emotional arc from a man's youth on to maturity and death, and throughout there is the same sense of looking back that we get in the Tippett, but Finzi's approach is much more securely in the music of the recent past. Yet Finzi's writing, the way the piano accompaniment is a definite presence complementing the voice rather than simply accompanying and supporting it, echoes that of Tippett. We opened with the free lyricism of A Young Man's Exhortation, appreciating the way Johnson shaped the phrases to the words. Ditty, and many of the other movements, seemed folk-inspired, and the use of a refrain at the end of each verse, yet approached differently each time, was something that crops up a few times in the cycle. Budmouth Dears is almost a patter song at times, brilliantly done, yet with a seriousness underneath. The final two songs of the first half moved from seriousness to touches of mysticism, the final song The Comet at Yell'ham with its amazingly eerie piano prelude and postlude. The first song of part two, Shortening Days had some surprising neo-Baroque hints, whilst The Sigh came very close to RVW's Linden Lea, yet there is a curious obsessiveness about the text with the old man looking back on his first kiss and wondering why she sighed. Both Former Beauties and Transformations deal, in different ways, with an older man looking back, evoking both the liveliness of the past and the melancholy of the present. And this continued with the deceptive simplicity of the final song, The Dance, with its melancholy mood yet a sense of contented enjoyment of the past.

For an encore Johnson and Vignoles continued the Finzi mood, going against the grain of the day's theme and giving us the 'Salutation' from Finzi's Dies Natalis.

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