The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Tardebigge in Worcestershire on Sunday 28 August.
For thirteen years Jennie McGregor-Smith and her team of helpers have brought some of the world’s finest singers to the Georgian church at Tardebigge, and persuaded them to champion a repertoire that – even if it’s no longer quite as endangered as it was back in 2004 – we still can’t afford to take for granted. The singers have ranged from Nicky Spence to Susan Bickley; the songs have spanned centuries and continents, with a remarkable list of world premieres and commissions. The welcome has been warm, the setting idyllic and the audience devoted.
No more. This was Celebrating English Song’s final concert, and it said everything about this wonderful little series that it turned out to be such a joyous occasion. The performers, Roderick Williams and Susie Allen, had a lot to do with that: Williams’s baritone is just so sunny, so graceful and so effortlessly expressive. He floated the opening lines of Butterworth’s Loveliest of Trees over Allen’s eloquent, understated piano in a single, rapturous arc; bringing out the cycle’s latent drama not with grand gestures, but with endless subtle shadings of the voice.
That set the tone for a concert designed to celebrate as many English-language song composers as possible in a mere two hours. Cycles by Butterworth, Ireland and Ivor Gurney anchored the programme; Quilter, Moeran, Warlock, Vaughan Williams and Britten also featured, as did Ian Venables – who took a bow in person. There was a gentle emphasis on local poets – Housman, Masefield, and Shakespeare – but this was as gloriously rich and diverse an afternoon as we’ve ever spent at Tardebigge, and if Williams’s cheerful attempts to get the audience to sing along in Gurney’s rum-fuelled Captain Stratton’s Fancy didn’t quite pay off, maybe it’s because this has always been more of a tea and cake crowd.
Finzi’s It Was A Lover And His Lass ended the official programme on a note of bright-eyed optimism. But there was one song left to sing: Gurney’s Sleep, a special request from Jennie herself – whose devotion and achievement in giving us these thirteen magical summers fully merited the ovation she received from audience and performers alike.