Classical music: Sir Hubert Parry 150th

Anniversary Concert,

Wigmore Hall, London

Sir Hubert Parry is one of those figures whose work is mainly known by reputation rather than performance. With the exception of his glorious 1902 coronation anthem, "I Was Glad", his 1916 setting of Blake's "Jerusalem" for unison voices and orchestra, one or two other choral works, and the occasional Shakespeare setting surfacing in recitals of English songs, much of his music is known - if at all - only through recordings. All the more reason for this 150th birthday celebration, which gave us a chance to hear some of his less well-known songs plus a long-lost string quartet.

The baritone Stephen Roberts, ably accompanied by Terence Allbright, began the evening with Parry's third set of English Lyrics, featuring the composer's customary mixture of Elizabethan and Augustan texts with poems by his contemporaries. "To Lucasta" established the note of heightened parlour-song - a sort of Victorianised chivalric idyll - so characteristic of Parry, but also his instantly recognisable musical voice. This tended to the purely conventional in a song like "Rivals", but rose to something much more intense and haunting in "Through the Ivory Gate" - a setting of a poem about friendship by his friend from Eton days, Julian Sturgis. Even here the tone was gently elegiac rather than anguished - a strain of melancholy observable also in Elgar and other contemporaries, and somehow mixed up with their innate "Englishness".

The long-lost Quartet, No 3 in G major (from 1880), turned out not to be so great a revelation. Again, Parry's lyrical talents were to the fore here, although the "death's head" Scherzo had a certain rhythmic drive - the song-like Andante was evidently the core of the piece, but its melodies were more comfortable than inspiring, despite the Emperor Quartet's best efforts. The latter were galvanised more noticeably by George Butterworth's rarely-performed song cycle with quartet accompaniment, Love Blows as the Wind Blows. This inhabited a more uncertain, less comfortable, post- Wagnerian world - that of the new generation so grievously decimated in the cataclysm of 1914 - a generation nurtured so carefully by Parry himself and his colleague Stanford. Ironically, though, the most memorable song of the group was "On the Way to Kew". A nostalgic vignette of an Edwardian summer day's dream.

In the second group of English Lyrics, Stephen Roberts seemed to expand and relax in such favourites as Parry's touching tribute to his wife, "And Yet I Love Her till I Die" and "Love is a Bable". Most intense was his rendition of the remarkable "From A City Window", again to a text by Sturgis, containing almost Debussyan sound-painting. The encore, Finzi's "Who is Sylvia?", reminded us again on the great debt British composers owed to this grand old man of our musical Renaissance.