Ludlow Festival, English Song Weekend

Patently English
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The Independent Culture

Does English song have an "image" problem? We have a fetish for deriding our own, even though Quilter, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Finzi, Britten all rival Schumann, and these are just the icing on a vast, rich wedding cake.

As Iain Burnside put it, designing an English Song programme is "like being let loose in Hamleys". Acclaimed presenter of Radio 3's Voices, Burnside is both accompanying genius and master-architect ­ in planning the Finzi Society Friends' Ludlow-based Weekend of English Song, he excelled himself.

Pride of place went to Finzi, Thomas Hardy (whose 161st birthday fell at the weekend), and a new commission from Judith Bingham, The Shadow Side of Joy Finzi, a "mad song" concocted from poems by the composer's late widow, infused by extracts from the storm scene in Lorna Doone. Rhythmically vital, imaginative, energised, pathos-ridden, it impressed all the more when soprano Irene Drummond repeated it the next day.

The big teddy bear in Burnside's toy box was Sir Thomas Allen, whose recording of Vaughan Williams' "A House of Life" epitomises the best of English song. Allen may be nearing his sell-by date ­ some detail was flawed ­ but as a magician of delivery he remains undimmed. To Finzi's Let us Garlands Bring, and to Britten's exquisite Winter Words, Allen brought all his gifts as story-teller, mesmeriser and exorciser of cares.

Bingham's dark chorale and swirling chromatics suggested a dark side, much as Hardy's poems do, and Burnside's skill lay in the subtle choreographing of theme and mood. Not that the doom-laden prevailed: tenor Adrian Thompson, on resplendent form for Roger Quilter's "Go lovely rose", concluded with a brilliant performance as "Van man" in Victoria Wood's riotously ghastly ditty "Northerners", from the 1981 series Wood and Walters.

There were other surprises: two striking songs by Dilys Elwyn-Edwards; three settings by Madeline Dring; Rebecca Clarke's "June Twilight"; Elizabeth Lutyens' "Refugee Blues"; two songs by Francis George Scott, poised between Britten and Pierrot Lunaire; a pair of magical settings by Hugh Wood; and an intoxicating Emily Dickinson cycle by the prodigiously gifted Julian Philips. The weekend's revelation was the Canadian-born baritone Brett Polegato ­ another Allen in the making.

Iain Burnside performs Finzi's 'Let us Garlands Bring' on Radio 3 tonight. Sir Thomas Allen sings Finzi and Butterworth at the V&A on 30 July at 1pm (broadcast live on Radio 3, repeated 6 Aug)

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