Ever since they were first published the poems that make up AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad have exerted a fascination over English composers. Today in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre we heard two first year members of the Ensemble Studio give performances of two settings that take quite different approaches to the texts.
George Butterworth’s settings are among the best known and have been recorded by what amounts to the pantheon of British baritones. Iain MacNeil rather bravely picked up the challenge of Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad. This is a cycle that kicks off with Loveliest of trees. Listening to Iain I realized, perhaps for the first time, what a difficult sing this is. It’s fiendish and one wonders how anyone makes it sound as effortless as, say, Thomas Allen does. While not effortless , Iain made a very decent fist of it and sounded really good in the rest of the cycle with a very brisk account of Think no more, lad and a very affecting interpretation of Is my team ploughing; another piece of great technical difficulty.
If Butterworth’s settings are wistful and very much in the pastoral English tradition, Ivor Gurney’s most certainly are not. Composed during WW1, Ludlow and Teme is hard to find adjectives for. Angry? Mad? Ironic? I’m not sure but pastoral they are not. Something of industrial warfare has invaded the timeless Shropshire countryside. Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure’s overtly emotional approach to these pieces worked really well with these aggressively “modern” settings with their spikily agressive piano parts, played here with fire and precision by Jennifer Szeto.
Perhaps The lads in their hundred/Ludlow fair best epitomises the contrast between the two composers. For Housman, and probably for Butterworth, there’s a romanticism in premature death; going in one’s “glory”. For Gurney there’s no such thing. He is writing in a world of premature death and precious little glory. Butterworth’s elegiac piano accompaniment is replaced by one that could have been scored for solo machine gun.
So, a fascinating concert. Both singers made a very decent fist of some very tricky music. It also takes some guts to take on difficult music that most people know through the most masterly of interpreters.