Tuesday, 2 September 2008

concert fun in Cambridge and Ely last week


Roger Quilter (1877-1953)

Three Shakespeare Songs, Op.6

Come away Death

O Mistress Mine

Blow, blow, thou Winter Wind

Quilter was born in Brighton and trained in Frankfurt during those years when British music began to emerge from the obscurity in which it had languished since the days of Henry Purcell. Vocal music was his forte so he wrote little apart from songs. These Shakespeare texts, extracted from his plays, have been set by many composers, but rarely so felicitiously. The first is a melodramtic lament over a broken heart, the second carries a familiar carpe diem message and the third is about a greater pain than anything the physical world can boast – friends who desert you.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Billy Budd, Op.50

Billy Budd’s death row aria

Many critics consider Britten to be the best of British, though his unusual harmonies and unique musical language mean that he is less well-loved than Elgar or Vaughan Williams who were both Romantics at heart. Both his serious and his silly sides are on display today. Having been press-ganged into joining the crew of the Indomitable, Billy, now popular amongst the crew, awaits execution for striking a superior officer – the sadistic Master-at-Arms, who died as a result of the blow. Set against the backdrop of the French/English naval conflicts in 1797, the opera is a tragic but thrilling tale of the rise and fall of Billy Budd, in whom is such goodness and potential, who falls foul of the justice that the sympathetic but somewhat weak Capt. Vere must uphold aboard his ship. As it is entirely set aboard the ship, Billy Budd is one of very few operas with an exclusively mono-gender cast, in this case, of male parts. Here, Billy’s sincerity and simplicity is demonstrated as he broods over his execution as dawn approaches on his last day…

Albert Herring, Op.39

Sid’s arietta

Albert Herring is still living a very sheltered life looking after his Mum’s grocery shop in the village, where unbeknown to him or anyone else outside the village council, a major social catastrophe has taken place. In the run up to the May Day celebrations, it has been discovered that there are no chaste, virtuous young maidens left to nominate for the prestigious position of ‘May Queen’. And so they are forced to re-establish the title as ‘May King’ since Albert, at least at this stage in the opera, is still virtuous and unblemished… In this aria Albert’s friend Sid, the butcher’s shophand, amiably goads him to enjoy more of the ‘finer things in life’, particularly the delights that girls bring. This aria stands just after the above decision has been made, early on in the opera, before Sid and his girl Nancy plot to sabotage Albert’s May Day coronation. Little do they know what’s in store for everyone concerned as chaos later runs riot in this comic romp!

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Songs of Travel

The Vagabond

Let Beauty awake

The Roadside Fire

Youth and Love

In Dreams

The infinite shining heavens

Whither must I wander?

Bright is the ring of words

I have trod the upward and the downward slope

Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection, Songs of Travel, compiled in 1893, was the inspiration for Vaughan Williams’ early song-cycle (1904). The later songs build on the musical material of the first few, bringing a unity that goes beyond common subject matter. The Vagabond is the most resolute of the travellers, and the poems move through morning and evening, a surreal domestic paradise, the transience of youth, unhappy sleep, endless night, the passing of warmth and friends, and the power of words to outlive their makers. The final, exhausted song, which was not discovered until after the compser’s death, sums up in the manner of a recitative the metaphysical and musical wanderings that have preceded it. Then it, too, fades away, transported and transfigured.

Needless to say, the baritone was none other than LDW himself