Monday 24 October 2022

Ludlow English Song Day at Wigmore Hall: Nicky Spence, Claire Barnett-Jones, Iain Burnside, Rosalind Ventris

Rosalind Ventris, Nicky Spence, Claire Barnett-Jones backstage at Wigmore Hall (Photo Nicky Spence/Twitter)
Rosalind Ventris, Nicky Spence, Claire Barnett-Jones
backstage at Wigmore Hall (Photo Nicky Spence/Twitter)
Lord, come away! Chisholm, Bennett, Tomlinson Griffes, Rubbra, Vaughan Williams, Britten; Claire Barnett-Jones, Nicky Spence, Rosalind Ventris, Iain Burnside; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 22 October 2022 (★★★★½)

Continuing Wigmore Hall's Ludlow English Song Day with a fascinating programme of lesser-known gems, ending with Britten's second canticle

As part of Wigmore Hall's Ludlow English Song Day (22/10/2022), for the early afternoon concert pianist Iain Burnside was joined by tenor Nicky Spence, mezzo-soprano Claire Barnett-Jones and viola player Rosalind Ventris for songs by Erik Chisholm, Richard Rodney Bennett, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Edmund Rubbra, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, ending with Benjamin Britten's Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac.

We began with five songs by the Scots composer Erik Chisholm, still something of a neglected talent whose songs are only just being rediscovered. His GK Chesterton setting, The Donkey (from 1923) combined Iain Burnside's vividly atmospheric piano with Nicky Spence's dramatic narration, the musical contrast between the two very striking with the strength of the vocal line setting off Chesterton's gnomic verses. The Offending Eye (from 1926) was another dramatic piece, given stark delivery by Claire Barnett-Jones with fine attention to the words. Barnett-Jones continued with Sixty Cubic Feet, setting words by the activist poet Randall Swingler (who worked a lot with Alan Bush). There is a folk-ish inflection to the tune, but the piano accompaniment was more pointed, that sense of marching along with quotations from other composers. The result managed to be ironic yet totally serious.


Chisholm also wrote songs inspired by traditional Gaelic airs. The Braw Plum was a William Soutar setting, given vivid utterance by Nicky Spence, but the Scots words required a deal of parsing before the sense came out. Yet Spence convinced with his wonderful characterisation. Home Sickness, setting his own words, featured a lovely old melody beautifully shaped by Barnett-Jones, simple yet effective.

Richard Rodney Bennett's intriguingly titled A History of the Thé Dansant (from 1994) sets three poems by his sister, MR Peacocke, which were inspired by old photographs of their parents. Each song, in a particular dance form, combines the essential rhythmic and melodic elements (at times in a rather Waltonian manner) with a more complex overlay as the poet remembers particular occasions. This is not so much a descriptive piece as one about memory, and MR Peacocke's poems are complex and allusive. Iain Burnside had great fun with the piano writing with its foxtrot, slow foxtrot and tango overlaid with Bennett's more edgier writing, whilst Barnett-Jones captured the character in each song, from the lively to the seductive and finally the touching.

The American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) is not a well-known name, perhaps because his mature style did not develop until 1917, leaving him just three years till his early death. His Three Poems of Fiona Macleod are real Celtic twilight, setting poems created by William Sharp in his persona as Fiona Macleod. But there was little of the airy-fairy about the music, Nicky Spence gave us a strong, direct vocal line supported by Iain Burnside's evocative piano to give us three richly textured songs. The second, Thy Dark Eyes to Mine was beautifully seductive, whilst the final song The Roseof Night was rather disturbing. The voice that this music seemed to point to was that of Samuel Barber (1910-1981).

The final three works in the programme all had an element of the religious about them, though the three composers, all English, had vastly different attitudes to religion. First came Edmund Rubbra's Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, settings from 1955 of poems by the metaphysical poet William Alabaster (1568-1640). Rubbra was religious and deeply spiritual, his interests extending beyond Christianity. Here, he drew a deep mysticism from Alabaster's dense poetry, writing for voice, piano and viola. For most of the songs, Claire Barnett-Jones' voice and Rosalind Ventris' viola intertwined in expressive duet, the one winding around the other. The dark intensity of Barnett-Jones', giving a powerful strength to the vocal line, contrasted with Ventris' sinuous, mellow viola line. Supported by Burnside's piano, the result was a pair of mesmerising, serious songs.

Next, Nicky Spence, Rosalind Ventris and Iain Burnside performed RVW's Four Hymns, written in 1914 (for the Three Choirs Festival) but not performed until 1920. The texts are not all, strictly hymns but they are each religious in tone, and poetic hymns of praise in the more general sense. Here the interaction of voice and viola was less a duet, and more that Ventris' viola acted as a sort of commentary on Spence's vocal line. All three performers brought a wonderful sweep to the opening, and in all four Spence brought out the sense of mystical rapture that RVW was able to imbue the music with, so that the songs came with a very personal sense of joy.

We ended with Britten's 1952 canticle, Abraham and Isaac, like the Rubbra and the RVW, a concert work that had a religious element. Britten took his text not from the bible but from the Chester Mystery Plays. It is a highly imaginative work, and Spence and Barnett-Jones gave us a slight element of staging, bringing movement to bear on the work's drama. The result was highly effective. There was a fine contrast between Spence's strong, lyric and flexible line as Abraham, and Barnett-Jones' intensely focused tone as Isaac, with the two coming together to magically create a third tone as the voice of God. The two brought out the work's underlying drama and the culminating duet for Abraham and Isaac was vividly intense indeed.

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