Review of the Song of the Severn, by Roderic Dunnett

Bells across the Severn – The Church Times, 17th May 2013

By Roderic Dunnett

MALVERN CONCERT CLUB came into being in 1903, the year when its founder, Sir Edward Elgar, launched his oratorio The Apostles. Commissioning new works has always been integral to the club’s activities. It remains, with the nearby Droitwich and Bromsgrove Concert Clubs, one of the Midlands’ most august and enterprising musical bodies. Another name associated with Worcestershire, mainly for the pining boyhood vistas that it yielded him of neighbouring Shropshire’s blue remembered hills, was A. E. Housman: one of four poets set by Ian Venables in his newly commissioned cycle Song of the Severn, which received its première just beneath the solid-towered Priory Church of Malvern at the town’s twin theatres.

This song cycle follows in a great tradition. Gaining inspiration from Vaughan Williams (On Wenlock Edge) and Ivor Gurney (Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland), Venables has offset his baritone soloist, the gifted Roderick Williams, with a string quartet – the first-rate Carducci Quartet – plus piano (played by the fluent and eloquent Tom Poster).

Those keyboard resonances prove crucial. Bells, throughout Venables’s output, play a haunting role, as in the joyous, then languid, bells of his Venetian cycle Love’s Voice, or the muffled bells that affect Invite to Eternity, his yearning settings of John Clare. Church bells – sensitively, sometimes concealed, sometimes imperiously – toll throughout this new work, as surely as they do in Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie or George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. Each time we hear them, they affect us differently. That is a pointer to the alluring variety of The Song of the Severn. What’s more, many of Venable’s song settings bear suggestions of epitaph (Clare again, or the death-resigned Emperor Hadrian – anima vagula blandula – and so on). A plaintive tinge permeates his extended setting of Sir Andrew Motion’s “Remember This”. But here, Venables has “opened up”, so as to invigorate this whole new poem sequence with a refreshing stylistic diversity. These songs have markedly different characters; even the two by the same poet, John Masefield, acquire a wholly contrasted hue. The opening poem, with its evocation of marching legions, recalls Housman’s “To-day the Roman and his trouble Are ashes under Uricon” (Wroxeter, the Wrekin). Masefield evokes an imaginary battle, much as Elgar does in his idealised Caractacus. (Curiously, no actual assault on the Malverns’ British Camp is recorded.) The middle section of this first song is shiveringly dark, a slow march full of omen (“Savage and taciturn the Roman hewed up- wards. . .”). The Cassivelauni and their westerly allies scatter. Tom Poster’s piano here doubles Williams’s intense solo line; the effect is surprisingly rich and strong. The final subsiding (“Quiet are clan and chief, and quiet Centurion and signifier”) is one of the most blissfully serene moments in the cycle.

The Housman setting, a poem not set before, I take it, as Venables prefers – witness his harrowing Songs of Eternity and Sorrow with their gay outcry (“O who is that young sinner. . . He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair”) – is “How clear, how lovely; how bright”. This is a rare poem whose last line, “Falls the remorseful day”, was a final obsession of the literary-minded Inspector Morse. The opening string pattern aches at least as much as it “conveys anticipation”, the composer’s avowed intention.But the way Venables’s first stanza takes off here (“Soars the delightful day”) is thrilling. “The vow I never kept before” has the whiff of a church-wedding exchange of vows (ironic, in that the longed-for partner is Housman’s student Geliebte, Moses Jackson). The interspersed pairing of viola and cello is caressingly beautiful.

John Drinkwater’s poem “Elgar’s Music” enables Venables to add a tribute of his own to his, and the concert club’s, great neighbour. “This Worcester man who out of little lanes of whitethorn bud, and Evesham orchards bright . . .”. Many of those Elgarian walking and bicycling places – Castlemorton Common, Druggers End, Bredon, the vale itself, or sombre Longdon Marsh, which inspired The Apostles – you can descry from the Malvern edge.

The second Masefield poem, “Laugh and be merry”, the cycle’s scherzo, does just that: it is as boisterous as Gurney’s Robert Graves settings, or John Ireland’s immortalising of Masefield’s “Sea Fever”. Ever a master of structuring, Venables again artfully leads his performers to a huge climax in the third stanza, at “In the dear green earth, the sign of the joy of the Lord”. It’s almost a wassailing song, à la Moeran or Peter Warlock (both noted quaffers).

But Venables is also a master of fun: the final, reiterated, almost parroted “Be you merry. . .”, is – coincidentally – a dead ringer for Tippett’s flitting Ariel: “Where the bee sucks”.

If England’s longest river has been a bit elusive so far in The Song of the Severn, the eulogy being more of upraised Malvern, the last song, begun in classic Venables vein, fits the bill: “The River in December”, by Philip Worner, a Worcester poet and teacher since the early 1960s. It is a wonderfully sustained achievement, where voice, rippling cello, and piano are brought together to beguiling effect, and a passage of intense beauty is reserved for the Carducci’s viola, Eoin Schmidt-Martin. As the river changes, this eloquent envoi reminds us, so do God’s people and God’s landscape.

Roderick Williams is a singer who brings joy, elegance, and meaning to everything he touches, English song above all. He has a gift for illumining any text, and comes armed with a composer’s sensitivity of his own. Williams brought an equally magical touch to Samuel Barber’s haunting setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”. Coloured increasingly with strange chromatics, its mysterious undertow shifting like slow-cascading sand, it is tinged by classical allusion (“Sophocles long ago Heard it on the Aegean”), the Metaphysicals, and Whitman-like pantheism (“The Sea of Faith Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d. . . the world Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, . . . And we are here as on a darkling plain”). The programming was ideal: Barber, with his word-setter’s sensitivity, wields potent influence on Venables’s music; you easily sensed how and why. To have two master songsmiths and such an expressive interpreter in a single concert yielded a glimpse into the whole rich world of art song.