The first song recital for 2015 in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Local Heroes series was given by tenor Andrew Goodwin and pianist Daniel de Borah (pictured) with a recital of works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Paul Dean. It set a high standard for all that is to follow.
Titled On Wenlock Edge, the program could be viewed as a complement to the Australian National Academy of Music’s orchestral program a few nights earlier, the most obvious factor linking the two performances being the music of George Butterworth. The recital concluded with Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, with A. E. Housman’s Loveliest of Trees opening his song cycle as well as forming the basis for his later A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for orchestra. Anybody who attended both concerts would have found this overlap particularly gratifying, not least because both versions were so admirably performed.
Inevitably, the theme of war is a significant part of Australian music-making for 2015. The Local Heroes series at the Melbourne Recital Centre shares the stories of Victoria’s World War I heroes, commemorating the ANZAC Centenary with the personal histories of over 80 Victorians involved in the, so-called, Great War. This concert paid tribute to Edward Ryan VC. Unlike George Butterworth MC, who died heroically in the trenches of the Somme in 1916 at the age of 31, Ryan (physically) survived his acts of “conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty” in 1918 on the Hindenburg Line.
Vaughan Williams and Butterworth set A. E. Housman’s poems not long before the war. Close friends, they revitalized the English pastoral tradition, but their approach to the Housman poems was markedly different. On Wenlock Edge (1909) is probably best known in its arrangement for tenor, piano and string quartet, but Vaughan Williams wrote additional material for a tenor and piano version and there is much to be said for this leaner form, especially in the extremely capable hands of Daniel de Borah. Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel in order to finesse his compositional skills and Ravel’s influence is apparent. Daniel de Borah encompassed the range of pianistic colour, from the Winter storms of the opening eponymous song to the quiet rapture of the second song, the tolling of the bells of “Bredon Hill” and the peaceful conclusion of “Clun” with sensitive control.
Andrew Goodwin (pictured) was similarly expressive throughout the evening, his soft singing being uncommonly beautiful. The more dramatic passages might have been better suited to a bigger space than the MRC Salon. His remarkable Evangelist in Bach’s St Matthew Passion at All Saints Church last year demonstrated that any reservations related to his bright rather penetrating tone in forte passages arise more from the suitability of the venue, especially in the Salon’s horizontal setup, than any vocal shortcomings. At times, diction appeared to be sacrificed in the interests of legato and beauty of tone, making it difficult to understand the text. Although the Dean and Butterworth were easier to follow, a copy of the poems would have been most helpful.
George Butterworth’s settings are simpler, more delicate renderings of Housman’s poems. “When I was one-and-twenty” is the only time he uses a traditional folk tune in these Housman songs, but they all have a folk-like character. The only poem common to the Butterworth and Vaughan Williams cycles, Is my team ploughing? takes the form of a dialogue between a ghost and his living best friend where the ghost poses a series of questions regarding his former lover. The two voices were differentiated to chilling effect as the situation was revealed. These song cycles are no lightweight pastoral idylls, but works full of nuance, irony and, occasionally, bitterness, all of which were communicated convincingly.
Between these two English cycles Paul Dean’s premiere performance of Beyond this place of wrath and tears made a welcome appearance. The three songs, based on poems by Henley, Blake and Tennyson, were full of emotional intensity and dark resonance. In addition to the considerable vocal demands of these songs in terms of pitch, colour and breath control, the piano part was surprising virtuosic. Both Daniel de Borah and Andrew Goodwin gave a beautifully phrased, heartfelt performance of these arresting songs, which were at once full of atmosphere and individual in musical language. Although challenging for performers, they are accessible and are bound to become regularly performed pieces of Australian art song repertoire.
Heather Leviston reviewed On Wenlock Edge at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon on March 3, 2015.
For about the full year’s Local Heroes series