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Roderick Williams Ludlow Parish Church ????? BBC Radio 3 listeners nationwide and beyond tuned into a packed St Laurence's Church for the opening recital in Ludlow's English Song Weekend, promoted now by Finzi Friends to biennial instead of triennial.

Roderick Williams would be a banker to throng any location. He brings charm, charisma, insight, and a wonderfully-linked bodylanguage (just watching his face and hands adds so much to the understanding of what he is communicating), all of which allied to a voice which has so many colours to its registers - and so much command over phrasing - in the service of the music he delivers. The trouble was that a large proportion of Friday's programme was so much of a muchness - poetry of a certain introverted slant inspiring music of a similar enclosed language. Offerings by Vaughan Williams and Finzi, despite all Williams' persuasive intensity and accompanist Iain Burnside's (also the festival's artistic director) adroit and sympathetic characterisation of what in other hands might emerge as predictable piano-writing, only occasionally sparked into life.

What did quicken the interest was Robert Saxton's Time and the Seasons, a Norfolk-inspired songcycle growing out of a song the composer dedicated to his wife (soprano Teresa Cahill) and with texts by the composer himself, he and Cahill present here.

There are reminiscences of Britten (scarcely surprising, given this East Anglian seascape) and Tippett but always a genuine engagement of communication, deploying a wide range of resources including a piano interlude, one song entirely monotone from the singer (well sustained, Roddy) and one unaccompanied.

Williams essayed a Mummerset accent for some of the evening's items, including a Linden Lea encore which thereby lost its gentle dignity. But the final encore was wonderful, My Love is like a Red Red Rose, fascinating in Williams' own arrangement, the piano busily imitating a Bach two-part invention.

Christopher Morley Ludlow English Song Weekend Ludlow Assembly Rooms As the creative force of the Ludlow English Song Weekend - and in his role of accompanist its most outstanding performer - Iain Burnside combines musical brilliance with productive scholarship. Saturday evening's concert, for example, explored the world of A. E. Housman through his letters and settings of his poems.

True, there were few surprises in the songs (lots of mooning over Shropshire landscapes and lost loves), all reliably and decently delivered by mezzo Ann Huntley, tenor Alexander Sprague (excellent in John Ireland's The Encounter) and baritone Marcus Farnsworth, who gave a particularly moving account of Ireland's In Boyhood.

But Housman's letters - read by Philip Franks with dry understatement - were most surprising, revealing a man of waspish sarcasm and little tolerance, especially in his opinions of composers and publishers.

Also included was the premiere, commissioned by Finzi Friends, of Judith Bingham's Zodiack, a 17th century translation by Edward Sherburne of the Roman poet/astrologer Marcus Manilius, whose works Housman edited. To reflect the text's antiquity Bingham resourcefully employs the music and techniques of Purcell, although the work is in no way a reworking or homage. In the context of this occasion it made a modest impact and was executed with appropriate relish by Sprague and Burnside. Whether or not it resonates with a wider audience remains to be seen.

On Sunday morning the focus fell on Thomas Hardy, with an elegantly unforced and meticulously articulated reading by tenor John Mark Ainsley of Gerald Finzi's A Young Man's Exhortation, interspersed with contrasted songs by others, some of which adopted a female perspective. They were sung by mezzo Clare McCaldin who, despite nursing a cold that tightened her upper register, displayed the necessary eroticism of Jonathan Dove's Between The Sheets and intensity required by Ireland's Her Song with great persuasion.

And the vocal muscularity and humour she invested in Hugh Wood's Town Owl (words by Laurie Lee) and William Bolcom's party-piece That Crazy Woman (such fun for the pianist) offered a stylistic range denied to Ainsley, who occupied a more consistently serious role in the programme. His last Finzi song (The Dance continued) was in every way a climactic moment, expressing an apotheosis of poignant resignation with a quiet poise that almost brought tears to the eyes.

The poetry of the final concert was that of Walter de la Mare, with several settings by Howells, Armstrong Gibbs, Lennox Berkeley and Richard Rodney Bennett, performed by Ainsley, Farnsworth and Huntley. Several songs ploughed familiar territory, which gave us a chance to hear one-time kiddies' favourite Five Eyes sung (in a somewhat po-faced fashion) by Ainsley and admire Huntley's tonal warmth, if not the clarity of her words, in Howells' King David.

Best of all, though, was the vocal subtlety demonstrated by Ainsley and Farnsworth in their interpretations of the more sombre songs, especially those of Armstrong Gibbs, which gave even the clunkiest verse a poetic elegance.

David Hart
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Title Annotation:Features; Review
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 4, 2015
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