Tuesday 6 July 2021

Three composers, 29 songs that deserve to be better known: London Song Festival's exploration of music by Geoffrey Bush, Malcolm Arnold, Peter Wishart

Geoffrey Bush, Malcolm Arnold, Peter Wishart
Geoffrey Bush, Malcolm Arnold, Peter Wishart

Three Unsung Genuises
- Geoffrey Bush, Malcolm Arnold, Peter Wishart; Anna Cooper, James Atkinson, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 July 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A wonderful exploration of songs by three recent centenarians, none of whom gets the recognition these imaginative songs deserve

London Song Festival's short Summer festival of song came to a striking conclusion on Monday 5 July 2021 with a programme entitled Three Unsung Geniuses. At Hinde Street Methodist Church, Anna Cooper (mezzo-soprano), James Atkinson (baritone) and the festival's artistic director, Nigel Foster (piano) performed songs by Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998), Peter Wishart (1921-1984) and Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).

Anna Cooper is the winner of the 2021 Maureen Lehane Awards whilst James Atkinson's performances have included Oxford Lieder Festival [see my review] and British Youth Opera [see our review]

The music of Geoffrey Bush and Peter Wishart is certainly not a well-known as it deserves to be, whilst though Malcolm Arnold's music is known, his songs remain relatively unexplored. Geoffrey Bush was encouraged and mentored by John Ireland; he studied at Oxford and then lectured at London University for over 40 years as well as other teaching posts including Visiting Professor of Music at King's College London. He edited Musica Britannica volumes on Parry and Stanford. Bush wrote a large number of songs with a dozen or so sets and cycles, as well as six operas and two symphonies. Peter Wishart studied music at Birmingham University with Victor Hely-Hutchinson and privately with Nadia Boulanger. He too had a significant teaching career and he eventually became Professor of Music at Reading University. He wrote symphonies, five operas and more, and his song writing is very much linked to his marriage to mezzo-soprano Maureen Lehane in 1963 (his third marriage). The Jackdaws Educational Trust was founded by Lehane in Wishart's memory. Malcolm Arnold's career encompassed ballets, symphonies, concertos and of course film scores, and though his film music includes vocal pieces, vocal writing did not play a large role in his output yet his small body of songs is well worth exploring.

All three composers came to maturity in the 1950s at a time when the tide of opinion in the British musical establishment was turning firmly towards modernism, leaving little room for the intelligent contemporary explorations of tonality practised by Bush, Wishart and Arnold. Both Bush and Wishart's song output has remained on the distant fringes of the repertoire without anyone really exploring in detail, and Bush's centenary last year seems to have spawned few if any new initiatives or recordings of his music. We must hope that Wishart's centenary this year proves more fruitful.

In terms of the texts set, what was fascinating about the evening was how few contemporary poets there were. We heard a great deal of poetry from the  classic 16th and 17th century authors along with some Victorian ones plus Dudley Fitts' translations of Ancient Greek, with only a handful of songs to contemporary poets, Kathleen Raine, Humbert Wolfe, James McAuley.

In style this music was tonal, often complex and willing to go exploring, but also interested in older forms. Both Bush and Wishart wrote songs which used the musical form to evoke past atmosphere of the text, and all three composers were not averse to complexities in their piano writing, seeming to push the envelope by challenging the piano and leaving the vocal part to be more approachable. All the songs in the recital seemed singable and well constructed, most were certainly worthy of further exploration and one or two made you long to hear the complete cycle.

The concert was arranged in themed groups, mixing songs by the different composers. Each half began with a narrative sequence of songs telling a sort of love story. The first sequence, A Love Story, began with Robert Herrick's The Impatient Lover, set by Bush, moving through Wishart's O Mistress Mine and Bush setting Ben Jonson to Malcolm Arnold setting John Donne and Humbert Wolfe, ending with Bush's Upon the loss of his mistresses again setting Herrick. Often the composers paired a lyric vocal line with a busier piano, sometimes neo-Baroque (Wishart's Serenade) and sometimes more 20th century (Wishart's O Mistress mine). Bush's The Kiss (setting Ben Jonson) started off in rapture and moved to something more structured. Both Bush and Arnold (in The Good Morrow setting John Donne) were not afraid of more richly romantic writing, whilst Bush's setting of Herrick's Upon Julia's clothes certainly relished the poet's vivid imagery ('the liquefaction of her clothes' indeed). We ended with a pair of melancholy songs, Anne Cooper in Arnold's lovely Humbert Wolfe setting, Noon, and Atkinson bringing the sequence to a touching end with Bush's Upon the loss of his mistresses (Herrick).

There were no printed (or projected words) we were reliant on the singers, and both certainly worked hard conveying music and meaning, ensuring that the poetry was prime. Both had moments to relish, so Cooper was beautifully communicative in songs like Wishart's Serenade whilst Atkinson clearly enjoyed Herrick's imagery in Bush's Upon Julia's clothes! Both singers rose admirably to the challenge of singing a programme of unfamiliar songs in English, often setting 17th century poetry!

The first part ended on a lighter note with a sequence devoted to birds and beasts and ending with a pair of limericks. We began with Cooper in Bush's fast and vivid The Wonder of Wonders followed by Wishart's best-known song, The Jackdaw (setting William Cowper). Then a pair of miniatures by Wishart written for Maureen Lehane, setting the contemporary poet James McAuley. Tune for Swans (sung by Atkinson) combined the hypnotic evocation of the swan's glide with moments of drama whilst The Magpie (sung by Cooper) was perkily characterful. Atkinson made Wishart's The Pessimist a wonderful character sketch and we ended with two delightful limericks, Bush's settings of Edward Lear, each with a neat musical sting in the tail.

Another Love Story featured seven songs by Geoffrey Bush plus another setting of John Donne by Arnold. We had four songs from Bush's Seven Greek Love Songs setting texts by Meleager (1st Century BC) translated by Dudley Fitts. Two, 'Fanfare' and 'Flower's featured early in the sequence, but two ended it, 'Night' and 'A Curse'. These latter two making it clear that the cycle took a liberal view of what a love-song was and each song was wonderfully characterful, with Atkinson highly vivid in each. Certainly I want to hear the whole of this rather imaginative cycle. Cooper brought out the lyrical beauty of Bush's Sir Philip Sidney setting, My true love hath my heart, and was nicely poised in Arnold's highly rhythmically tricksy setting of John Donne, Woman's Constancy.

Sadness and Comfort brought Cooper's lovely account of Bush's neo-Purcellian setting of Ben Jonson, Echo's Lament and then the touching simplicity of Arnold's early song Night (again setting Humbert Wolfe). Arnold's Morning Moon was again relatively early (1948) and set Maurice Carpenter, a poet who was a friend of the composer's. Evidently Carpenter gave Arnold the m/s of the poem, and it does not appear in any of Carpenter's collected works. 

We ended with two songs from Bush's The End of Love, his cycle setting the poet Kathleen Raine. This was Bush attempting to modernise his style. He did not pursue the experiment, but I found these two songs terrific and would love to hear the whole cycle. First Cooper in a superb account of the lovely, but bleak 'The End of Love' and then both singers in 'Introspection' which contrasted poised questioning with intensely violent answer. Ending on a sort of 'where did this come from?' moment, that made you want to hear more.

Both singers were admirably communicative and took pains to ensure this was an evening of music and poetry, and both clearly delighted in the dramatic prospects that the songs gave them. All three performers had evidently worked hard digesting this wonderful yet unfamiliar music and many of the performances made me want more.

The concert will be available on the London Song Festival's YouTube channel.

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