Rhosygilwen Proms-Vaughan Williams, Britten
Rhosygilwen proms with Balthasar piano Quartet. Iain Burnside (piano). Tim Hugh (cello), Katerina Nazarova (violin), viola (TBA). Elgan Llyr Thomas (tenor)Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge, tenor: Elgan Llyr ThomasLisa Lan a Welsh folk song arranged by Elgan Thomas
Britten Michelangelo sonnetsKodaly-Violin and cello duetSibelius-String trio
Vaughan Williams completed On Wenlock Edge in its original version for tenor, string quartet, and piano in 1909, later reworking the cycle for tenor and orchestra between 1918 and 1924. He used poetry from A.E. Housman’s quintessentially English collection A Shropshire Lad for the cycle (see below). There is something unmistakably English, too, about Vaughan Williams’ music. It is simultaneously sophisticated and down-to-earth, ingenious in its instrumental effects and straightforward in setting the texts.
This juxtaposition is immediately apparent in the first song, with its shimmering opening, which owes something to Ravel and the French musical impressionists, conjuring up the wind with which the text is occupied. Vaughan Williams’ approach to the text works on two levels – that of word-painting, and that of bringing out the meanings inherent in phrases or in an entire text. Again, in the first song, he paints words like “high” and “gale,” and depicts the sense of foreboding in phrases like “the wood’s in trouble” and “His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves” in the accompaniment.
This approach runs through the cycle. Witness the third song, with its mournful cast, interrupted by a moment of comfort, a snatch of a lullaby, as the narrator urges “Be still, my lad, and sleep.” The fifth song, too, is full of onomatopoeic effects, with an accompaniment reminiscent of pealing church bells. The cycle as a whole shows Vaughan Williams at his most characteristic – the composer who was every bit as accomplished and sophisticated as his continental counterparts without forsaking England’s heritage of folk music, the man who was related to the Darwins and the Wedgwoods and dressed like a farmer. On Wenlock Edge is an early utterance from a composer who was one of the most stirring of the 20th century, with an international appeal rooted firmly in his Englishness.
Lisa Lân (Fair Lisa) is a Welsh folk-song. It is a lover’s lament for the late Lisa, ending when the heartsick lover asks Lisa to guide him to where she is, so that he may be reunited with her. This version has been adapted and sung tonight by the tenor Elgan Llyr Thomas
Britten’s Michelangelo Sonnets.
This was the first complete song cycle Britten wrote for Peter Pears, and he dedicated the set to him. It is an ardent and romantic setting of Michelangelo’s verse in the original Italian. As Colin Matthews suggests in this week’s film, the foreign language provided an element of disguise for a song cycle so clearly written as a love letter to Pears. The whole cycle – like the text – depicts a wide range of emotions towards the object of affection: by turn passionate, soulful, fiery and tender. Britten’s piano writing is virtuosic and the vocal range requires a formidable technique from the singer.
Britten and Pears recorded it privately in 1941 while they were still in America, and in the extracts from this recording (transferred from the original 78rpm discs by NMC) Pears can be heard in all his youthful glory. He was at that time making the transition from useful amateur to serious professional, following lessons in New York with Clytie Mundy. Even at this early stage, his voice has great flexibility and the ability to cope with the demands of both text and music in this demanding cycle.
The work was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in September 1942, a few months after Britten and Pears returned to the UK. This year’s Aldeburgh Festival sees another premiere: Colin Matthews’ orchestration of the Seven Sonnets, which will be performed during the opening concert on 8 June 2018.
Preconcert suppers are also available for this performance. Please book by calling James on 01239841387. Our Garden to Plate menus created by Guy Morris include a main course and dessert for £20 fully inclusive.