Prom Chamber Music 2: 30th July 2001 – A British Baritone in Clover

Let Us Garlands Bring
Mörike Lieder (four selections)
The Salley Gardens
The Plough Boy
The Miller of Dee
Vaughan Williams
Silent Noon
Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad

Sir Thomas Allen (baritone) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 30 July, 2001
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The second Chamber Music Prom this year was devoted almost in its entirety to the English pastoral movement, typified by early 20th-century songsmiths Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, and slightly later exponents, Finzi and Britten. Of course, this year marks the centenary of Finzi’s birth and the 25th-anniversary of Britten’s death. Both had been represented in last Saturday night’s Prom (No.11) in one of the (disappointing) visits by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Richard Hickox.

For this lunchtime concert in the rather airless Victoria & Albert Museum Lecture Theatre we were in the utterly reliable hands of Sir Thomas Allen and Malcolm Martineau.The setting and nature of this recital was all rather twee; the majority of the audience was, how can I put it, getting on … I mention this not to suggest that I may well have been the youngest there, but to point out a potential sales trend. ’Oldies’ obviously book fastest, leaving the not-so-initiated youngsters without a ticket and a great recital.

This recital, simply, was a delight, and the audience’s reaction was such that I left feeling that we were of a common opinion. The piano was sometimes too loud (a fault of the acoustic, not the playing). Sir Tom’s high register may not be as easy and lyrical as in his younger days, but his intelligence with regard to lyrics and effortless phrasing, coupled with the joyful cheekiness that glints from his eyes and inflects his even posture, easily outweighs any occasional lapse of tone colour. Malcolm Martineau couldn’t stop smiling throughout; Stephanie Hughes (Radio 3’s announcer for the live relay) had told us that the two artists were completely unfazed by the extraordinary heat.

Allen can conjure a cool stillness in such songs as Finzi’s central setting ’Fear no more’ in his Shakespeare cycle, and carry us, in rapt silence, straight from Britten’s The Miller of Dee into Vaughan Williams’s Silent Noon. He can also, just as easily, conjure up a youth’s sudden awakening in spring, the feeling which most characterised the only non-English songs represented, four of Hugo Wolf’s Mörike songs: ’Fussreise’, ’Der Gärtner’, ’Jagerlied’ and ’Er ist’s’.

The first set of Butterworth’s songs from A Shropshire Lad brings an enormous sense of nostalgia for a lost world, decimated by the horrors of the First World War, and particularly alluded to in the last two songs, ’The Lads in their hundreds’ and ’Is my team ploughing?’Thankfully, Allen and Martineau broke that sombre mood with two more of Britten’s folk songs for encores – the first from Allen’s North-east homeland, Bonny Lad; the second, the curious tale of the bachelor who, with the help of The Foggy, Foggy Dew, ends up with a son, but remains a bachelor.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast this Sunday, 5 August, at 1 o’clock

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