Saturday 22 June 2024

The Sea and Ships: the London Song Festival celebrates the first Shipping Forecast to be broadcast on British radio

The Sea and Ships: a celebration of the first Shipping Forecast to be broadcast on British radio; Jess Dandy, Gareth Brynmor John, Nigel Foster, Simon Butteriss; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church

The Sea and Ships: a celebration of the first Shipping Forecast to be broadcast on British radio; Jess Dandy, Gareth Brynmor John, Nigel Foster, Simon Butteriss; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed 21 June 2024

A delightfully diverse celebration both of the sea and of English and Irish composers' fascination with it with everything from Elgar to Noel Coward and Frederick Delius to contemporary composers Julian Philips and Martin Bussey.

Having celebrated bicentenary of the invention of the Mackintosh last year [see my review], Nigel Foster and the London Song Festival celebrated the centenary of the first Shipping Forecast to be broadcast on British radio with The Sea and Ships, a programme of English song performed by contralto Jess Dandy and baritone Gareth Brynmor John, with pianist Nigel Foster and speaker Simon Butteriss. The programme began with Ronald Binge's Sailing By and ended with Noel Coward's Sail Away and in between songs and arrangements by René Atkinson, Ivor Gurney, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, Michael Head, Peter Warlock, John Ireland, Frederick Delius, Edward Elgar, Martin Bussey, Rebecca Clarke, John Glover-Kind, Julian Philips, Steven Mark Kohn, Gerald Moore, Charles Villiers Stanford, and Michael Tippett.

We began with a tribute to the Shipping Forecast with both singers in Ronald Binge's Sailing By, an instrumental version of which is played on the radio before the forecast itself; charming and very redolent of the parlour. Simon Butteriss reading of the forecast itself was punctuated by three songs, each referring to one of the areas mentioned. Jess Dandy really invested in The Waters of Tyne, a traditional song in a very art-song arrangement by René Atkinson, then Gareth Brynmor John swaggered nicely in Ivor Gurney's Thomas Hardy setting, The Night of Trafalgar, an early song rather redolent of Peter Warlock. Finally the two soloists joined together for Flanders and Swann's Rockall, their deadpan delivery and terrific diction making the most of the work's delightful double entendre.

Ships and Sailors began with Michael Head's The Ships of Arcady with Dandy giving us a lovely line allied to rich, focused tone, then John was swaggering again in Head's A Dog's Life, but investing in the touching moments too. Noel Coward's Has anybody seen our ship (first sung by Coward himself with Gertrude Lawrence in the review Tonight at 8:30) featured the two singers in quite a serious take on the song which was funny because so deadpan. John returned to the sea chanty style with some genuine Warlock, the terrific ode to rum that is Captain Stratton's Fancy, then Dandy gave us John Ireland's Sea Fever, her rich tone combined with a feel for Masefield's poetry to bring out the work's lyric melancholy.

Nights by the Sea featured John in Delius' Summer Nights, rich romanticism and an element of mystic rhapsody that, at times, didn't quite sound like Delius at all. Then Dandy in Sea Slumber Song from Elgar's Sea Pictures, Dandy's impressive contralto voice returning us to a sound world in this song that Elgar would have recognised, and the version with piano giving a touch more intimacy.

There was further Elgar, as Dandy continued with Where Corals lie from Sea Pictures, for the section on The Magic and Mystery of the Sea. Here Foster drew out the engaging dance-like element to the accompaniment, complementing Dandy's lyrical vocals. Then John gave us another Hardy setting, this time The Phantom Horesewoman by contemporary composer Martin Bussey. A complex yet tonal work that was a wonderfully effective free arioso. The first half ended with Jess Dandy in Rebecca Clarke's The Seal Man (setting more John Masefield). Dandy gave us really intent storytelling, moving from spine-tingling intimacy to the quasi-operatic.

The second half began with The Lure of the Sea, pairing John Glover-Kind's delightfully suggestive Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside with Julian Philips' Emily Dickinson setting, Ah Ev'rywhere of Silver from Philips' Swift Partitions (a song cycle that Foster premiered in 1998). This gave us an evocative, mysterious piano complementing John's sensuous, intense vocal line.

Divided by the Sea paired Steven Mark Kohn's traditional song arrangement, Ten Thousand Miles Away, with John bringing out the art song elements in Kohn's arrangement, with another traditional song, this time arranged by pianist Gerald Moore, Blow the Wind Southerly. This was memorably associated with Kathleen Ferrier, here Jess Dandy was serious and very much herself.

Homeward Bound began with Stanford's Homeward Bound from Songs of the Sea. John and Foster brought out the poetry of the song and the surprising complexity. Then Dandy sang Michael Head's The Estuary, leaving the tweeness of Head's The Ships of Arcady behind to give us something where time seemed suspended, moving slowly towards dignified rapture. 

The final section was The Embrace of the Sea which featured two more Emily Dickinson settings from Julian Philips' Swift Partitions sung by John. The waters chased him was intense and rather disturbing whilst My river runs to thee was impulsive with almost jazz-like rhythms as it moved to an intense climax. Between these, Dandy gave a strong, strange and mysterious account of Full Fathom Five from Tippett's Songs for Ariel (written for an Old Vic production of The Tempest starring Alastair Sim and Eileen Atkins)

We ended with more Noel Coward, the rather disturbing, yet delightful Sail Away where Coward proclaims that the solution to any of life's problems is to 'sail away'!

Throughout, speaker Simon Butteriss provided the connective tissue between the songs with a series of apt and sometimes devastating pieces of poetry and prose, sometimes quite tiny and very eclectic in the choice of writing including Jacques Cousteau, Arthur Ransome, Walt Whitman, Samuel Johnson, John Masefield, Virginia Woolf, Rabindranath Tagore, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Longfellow, Sylvia Plath, Swinburne, Sara Teasdale, Langston Hughes, and Mark Twain, plus Dickens' Dombey and Son, Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, and Camus' The Plague. 

All in all a thoughtful and imaginative evening, that kept the focus where it was needed, on the songs.

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