Dan Cupid Hath a Garden!

Sheffield Bach Choir is singing from an entirely different song-sheet to its more usual repertoire at St Mark’s Church, Broomhill on the 11th of June.

Although the choir will not be singing it, ‘Dan Cupid Hath a Garden’ may serve as an immediate clue as to what to some.

No?? – Edward German’s Merrie England!!

Once extremely popular, it is rarely encountered now. Not even its one-time inescapable arias, such as the foregoing Dan Cupid, the familiar opening line of The English Rose, which every British tenor worth his salt sang at one time.

Almost equal in fame are the baritone’s Yeomen of England, the mezzo-soprano’s O Peaceful England with, closely following, She Had a Letter From Her Love, Who Shall Say That Love is Cruel? – two for the soprano! and another for the tenor, Every Jack Should Have a Jill.

The work is choc-o-bloc with superb tunes among its two dozen-plus music numbers and has an array of historical characters: Elizabeth I (the mezzo); Sir Walter Raleigh (the tenor); Earl of Essex (the baritone); and Bess Throckmorton (the soprano).

While they don’t actually appear, the work’s witty librettist Basil Hood – who has one character summarising the plot of Romeo and Juliet using only the A-Z of the alphabet – writes Shakespeare himself, Robin Hood and Maid Marian into the scenario.

The latter two can be said to appear as Raleigh and Bessie play them – but none of this is really relevant as the work is being performed in concert form and without spoken dialogue.

Instead, a narrator will carry the story of love, intrigue and rivalry at the court of Elizabeth I around Windsor when a love letter from Raleigh to one of her ladies-in-waiting, Bessie Throckmorton, ends up in the Queen’s hands.

“Alan Horsey (providing piano accompaniment) who has a very dry sense of humour, has written the narration for his wife, Elizabeth, and there is no other dialogue,” confirms Sheffield Bach Society secretary Liz Buxton.

She adds: “The Horseys have performed Merrie England many times it seems and make very entertaining,” while noting that the performance’s perhaps unlikely conductor in some eyes, Simon Lindley: “has quite an affection for the work.”

The 1902 comic opera is the Bach Choir’s contribution to this year’s Broomhill Festival, which gets underway on the 8th of June.

It also concludes the choir’s present season and details of its new, more predictable one, including two Messiahs (one a special!), can be found in the Digest section on the Classical Sheffield website.


Happy 80th, SPC!

A number of ‘anniversaries’, some might say ‘coincidences’, attach themselves to the 80th birthday concert: an all-Ralph Vaughan Williams affair, of the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus at the City Hall on the 4th of June.

This year also sees the 60th birthday of the Phil’s (sorry, they seem to prefer SPC) former chairman Julie Smethurst and a co-sponsor of the concert.

Vaughan Williams was on the French Western Front 100 years ago in 1916 with the Royal Army Medical Corps and the concert’s main work, his cantata Dona Nobis Pacem, was first performed in 1936, the year the chorus was formed.

It had been commissioned by the Huddersfield Choral Society to mark its centenary and VW was still in broadly the same frame of mind he had been when he penned his discordant and acerbic Fourth Symphony a year earlier.

He later declared that he wasn’t sure he liked it. “All I know is that it’s what I wanted to do at the time,” he said. He always insisted the symphony was not programmatic and that it should heard as ‘pure music.’

If we take his word for it that had nothing to do with the political turmoil Europe was in at the time, it and foreboding were uppermost in his mind with Dona Nobis Pacem, the final words of the Agnus Dei in the Latin Mass – Grant us peace.

While being pals with the likes of Bertrand Russell may or may not have had any influence on the symphony, the cantata had everything to do with what he experienced and saw on the battlefields of Europe during World War One.

Among the things he eye witnessed was the wholesale carnage at the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 which left over one million people dead.

The work is in six continuous parts and for its text VW drew on three of Walt Whitman’s poetic reflections of the American Civil War: Beat! Beat! Drums! Reconciliation, and Dirge for Two Veterans – which he originally set in 1914!

There is also a quote from a House of Commons speech by John Bright trying to prevent the Crimean War; sombre sections from the Book of Jeremiah; and parts of the Latin Mass.

The concert begins in rather more joyous circumstances with VW’s 1920 setting of O Clap Your Hands and end in equally happy realms with the fifth of the George Herbert settings that comprise Five Mystical Songs from 1911, Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing.

Just before it is the Shakespeare-inspired Serenade to Music he wrote for 16 famous British singers of the day in 1938. Later, realising the difficulty inherent in finding 16 first-rate soloists for future performances, he made four arrangements of the work.

They included one for much fewer solo singers, choir and orchestra, the version it will be heard in here.

Two purely instrumental works making up the concert are the Fantasia on Greensleeves, a 1934 arrangement by Ralph Greaves for flute, harp and strings drawing on VW’s regular usage of it, and everyone’s favourite Vaughan Williams piece, The Lark Ascending.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will be on the City Hall stage, as will the Sheffield Bach Choir who performed Dona Nobis Pacem in November 2014 under Simon Lindley. Overseeing proceedings on this occasion is SPC music director Darius Battiwalla.


Roderick Williams: Great News – Twice!

Roderick Williams
12 July 2010

Two days after his superb performance of Howard Skempton’s marvellously spare The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Music in the Round’s May Festival, Roderick Williams was in the limelight at the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards last Tuesday, the 10th of May.

The baritone, recently appointed as Music in the Round’s first Singer-in-Residence, received the Singer Award for 2016.

The citation read: The jury found much to celebrate in the work of all three short-listed singers this year. The winner, however, stood out for a remarkably wide-ranging year of song, in particular his exemplary performances of British 20th and 21st century repertoire, including his own compositions. A consummate artist and a singer with whom composers and fellow musicians find it a joy to work. The award goes to Roderick Williams.

A further fanfare! It has just been confirmed that ‘Roddy’ will record Skempton’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written for him and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, this autumn for release in 2017.

Premiered at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham in December and repeated at London’s Wigmore Hall the following evening, undoubtedly it will have been a contributing factor in the RPS Music Award.

The recording will probably be with the BCMG, although Music in the Round’s resident group, Ensemble 360, should possibly not be completely ruled out.


Metaphysical Musings

Viva Voce has come up another award-winning programme for its concert at Upper Chapel this coming Saturday, the 14th of March.

Entitled A Mosaic of the Air: Music of Love & Loss from the Metaphysical Poets (and associates), it runs a gamut of styles and composers – and Elizabethan-age poets (two slightly later) of abstract persuasion!

So caught up by the idea was the chamber choir: “We enlisted the expertise of Dr Emma Rathigan of Sheffield University (Early Modern Religious Writing; Sermons; John Donne) to enhance our understanding of the metaphysics to aid new insights into performance interpretation,” says Tony Jones who directs the concert.

The poets, followed by composers who were inspired by their words, are: John Donne – Parry: At the round earth’s imagined corners; William Henry Harris (1883-1973): Bring us, O Lord God and No noise nor silence, but one equal music; and Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne – selection.

George Herbert – Judith Weir: Love bade me welcome – a cappella arrangement of No 1 from Two Human Hymns 1994. Andrew Marvell – Lloyd Pfautsch (1921-2003): Musick’s Empire from ‘Triptych’ for the State College of Arkansas 1968.

Henry Vaughan – Parry: My soul, there is a country; Finzi: Welcome Sweet and Sacred Feast Op 27 No 3. Edward Taylor – from ‘Sacramental Meditations’, Finzi: My lovely one Op 27 No 1 and God is gone up Op 27 No 2. Francis Quarles – Richard Rodney Bennett: A Good Night.

Plus, and presumably these are the ‘associates’, four tobacco-related pieces by Dowland: Can she excuse my wrongs; Michael East: O Metaphysical Tobacco; Tobias Hume Tobacco No 3 of Musicall Humours (1605); and contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mӓntyjӓrvi: Smoking Can Kill (Modern Madrigal No 3).

And there is some ‘complimentary repertoire’ by Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel – a selection; and Jonathan Dove: Into thy hands (two prayers of St Edmund).

Apparently, some members of the choir are threatening to be idiosyncratically dressed to represent poets throughout the ages – so, not just the metaphysical variety! and the madrigalesque tobacco repertoire will be set at a ‘tavern’ celebrating and decrying its recreational uses.


Review: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

“I relish a challenge,” Howard Skempton told his audience in process of introducing his setting of Coleridge’s epic, seven part poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for Music in the Round’s May Festival at the Crucible Studio.

Now that is a challenge – and a half, at least! And he has succeeded quite brilliantly, albeit not setting the whole thing. He reckons two-thirds of it, which looks about right.

A few stanzas here and there are clipped out in the first four parts, after which the slices are more substantial. However, unless you are scandalised Coleridge devotee, the cuts do not affect the narrative flow.

If anything, they tighten and enhance it with the aid of Skempton’s highly atmospheric, understated score and an imperious vocal performance from the person it was written for, baritone Roderick Williams.

With his God-given gift for communication, he draws you into the Mariner’s nightmare world with natural ease and without histrionics; just superb word painting and phrasing in his effortlessly smooth delivery of Skempton’s mildly declamatory vocal lines which never allow the voice to take full flight.

Similarly, there are no flourishes in the spare instrumental writing for an ensemble of two violins, viola, cello, double bass, horn and piano, here members of Ensemble 360.

More often than that not, only one or two instruments play at any time over the work’s duration of around 35 minutes, such as a subdued solo cello leading you into it and out at the end.

As a whole, the overall effect is hypnotic and, ultimately, the piece is shot through with poignancy.

Proceedings began a plangent account of Beethoven’s second Razumovsky quartet, Op 59 No 2, from Ensemble 360. Extremely well played throughout, the celebrated adagio was ideally paced after the tumult of the opening movement and with lots of fire and energy after it.