Two interesting reviews over the last few days: a beautiful Rachmaninoff Vespers (we’ll forgive then for spelling it “Rachmaninov” – grrr…) at St Mary’s Church, Warwick, and a song recital at Tardebigge church yesterday. It’s a fascinating place – a crumbling Georgian pile on a hill in the fields outside Bromsgrove, whose churchyard apparently contains the grave of the Queen of the Gypsies (we couldn’t find it). We were there for the annual Celebrating English Song series, and a setting like that naturally makes you think “English pastoral”. Sure enough, there was Finzi’s Dies Natalis at the top of the programme, beautifully performed but sounding a little threadbare without its full string orchestra.
But it went down well, and the Finzi Trust put up a good showing during the interval, complete with sales stall. Old Gerald clearly has a enthusiastic audience, and I’m gradually coming to see past his rather watery (IMHO) ideas and find something a bit knottier underneath: though the Clarinet Concerto and the Christmas cantata In Terra Pax are still the only two pieces of his that I’d actually go out of my way to hear. Maybe it’s the whole English cathedral choral thing; boy sopranos, modal harmonies, the aura of damp stone and dull Sunday teatimes that so many folk seem to find so magical, and which gives so much really rather feeble vocal music the status of cherished national treasure. I’ve never really been part of that world.
But the concert ended with a series of songs by Frank Bridge. No supporters’ club for him – the soprano Elizabeth Watts actually went out of her way to explain who he was. And yet – just as I, at least, expected – there it all was: freshness, clarity, craftsmanship, a depth of emotion combined with an almost classical grace, transparency and lightness-of-touch. In a word: inspiration – the real thing.
I’ve been finding all this in Frank Bridge for so many years: in his superb chamber music and his lovely, luminous orchestral scores. Why one neglected composer strikes a widely-felt chord and attracts a cult following, while another equally gifted (I’m being charitable to Finzi here) composer continues to need special pleading, I honestly don’t know. The suspicion rises – not for the first time – that my ears are simply wired differently from those of my musical fellow countrymen.