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Susan Bickley [Photo: Samantha Ovens]
10 May 2010

Modern English Song Alive and Well

London’s Wigmore Hall is one of the world’s great centres for art song. This recital, by Susan Bickley and Iain Burnside, specialists in the genre, showed that English language art song is alive and thriving.

Modern English Song: Works by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Ivor Gurney, John White, Jeremy Dale Roberts, Julian Grant, Brian Elias, Richard Baker, William Bolcom

Susan Bickley, mezzo-soprano; Iain Burnside, piano, Wigmore Hall, London

Above: Susan Bickley [Photo: Samantha Ovens]


Everyone’s heard Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, even if they don’t realize it. He wrote the music for the films, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Far from the Madding Crowd and Murder On the Orient Express . He embraces jazz, cabaret and show tunes enthusiastically, yet he studied with Pierre Boulez for two years. The four Dream Songs (1986) are to poems by Walter de la Mare, catching the poet’s delicate magic. “Elf-light, bat-light, touchwood-light…in a dream beguiling in a dream of wonders in a world far away”.

Susan Bickley and Iain Burnside have been working with Bennett for many years, so this performance hinted at much greater riches on offer.

Bennett, though, isn’t by any means the only English composer writing art song. There are many others less well known but very good indeed. Bickley and Burnside chose a small sample from the iconic NMC Songbook. NMC is an innovative, independent company, dedicated to promoting the best in modern British song. The NMC Songbook won the 2009 Gramophone award for Best Contemporary Recording. It’s a window on what’s happening in British music.Such a range of composers and styles! Diverse as the scene is, it’s definitely creative.

John White’sHouses and Gardens in the Heart of England sets the text of a tourist brochure. It’s hilarious, playing with the self consciously stunted Officialese. Bickley sings with mock solemnity, Burnside brings out the free flowing liveliness in the piano part. This song is so good it should be standard repertoire. Jeremy Dale Roberts (b 1934) Spoken to a Bronze Head is an elegiac contemplation of the passage of time, well paced and elegant. Julian Grant’s Know thy Kings and Queens is an exercise in downbeat humour, while in Brian Elias’s Meet me in the Green Glen, plangent lines recall plainchant. Richard Baker’s Lullaby pits jerky staccato piano against voice in brittle irony. Not a typical soothing lullaby : this baby fights back!

Bickley and Burnside have also recorded Ivor Gurney songs, so it was good to hear them perform a selection live. Gurney was quintessentially “English”, only really happy in his native Gloucestershire countryside, but bucolic he is not. There’s an edge in his work which is universal. Bickley performed the famous I will go with my father a-ploughing as if it were grand opera, but was more idiomatic in the other songs, such as the tender All Night under the Moon.

But what to make of By a Bierside, where, in the first strophe Gurney mourns the loss of life, then switches to a strange celebration of death “It is most grand to die”, emphasized by a huge arching line after momentary silence. Bickley’s voice soars triumphantly, but what kind of triumph does Gurney really mean ? Gurney’s more ambiguous than he seems.

Bickley and Burnside ended their concert on an upbeat note, with William Bolcom’s 3 Cabaret Songs (1977-85) Each song is a vivid vignette. Murray the Furrier comes alive in Bickley’s characterization. Amor is joyously camp, a cheerful parody showing that art song can, after all, get an edge on pop.

Anne Ozorio

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