Proms Chamber Music – 1 (Sir Thomas Allen)

Dover Beach
L’horizon chimérique, Op.118
Sleep; The Fox; Three Belloc Songs; Captain Strachan’s Fancy
Britten (arranged)
O Waly, Waly
Trade Winds
Sailor’s Song
Tom Bowling
Sea Fever

Sir Thomas Allen (baritone) & Imogen Cooper (piano)

Royal String Quartet [Izabella Szalaj-Zimak & Elwira Przybylowska (violins), Marek Czech (viola) & Michal Pepol (cello)]

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 18 July, 2005
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Ten years since Proms Chamber Music started, the success has been rewarded with a move from the enclosed confines of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Lecture Theatre to the bright, sunlit-warmed and comfort of one of London’s newest concert venues, Cadogan Hall, just off Sloane Square Underground.

And one could not have wished for a more ebullient occasion to launch the new home. Launch is an apposite word as the theme was inspired by one of the Proms principal focuses this year, the Sea. Sir Thomas Allen with Imogen Cooper also had time to celebrate the 75th-anniversary of the death of Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), with a central clutch of six songs which also saw the unscheduled appearance of one of Warlock’s inspirations (of which more anon).

First, however, the mood was sombre and the musical textures spare when Allen was joined by the Royal Quartet for Samuel Barber’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s spiritual analogy of the sea “Dover Beach” – as much about “the sea of faith” as it is about the actual briny. One’s only regret was this was the Royal Quartet’s only contribution to the programme.

A taste of real salt and spume followed in Fauré’s late cycle “L’horizon chimérique” with its three songs of the sea – urgently expounding its infinity, the thrill of embarking, and the majesty of Tall Ships – joined by a song to the moon, placed third, offering a stiller plateau between Imogen Cooper’s rocking motifs imitating the swelling waters.

The Warlock settings – just six out of his 100 or so – were marked by alternating seriousness and humour: two facets that Tom Allen has easily accomplished throughout his career. “Sleep” to John Fletcher’s “Jacobethan” (a phrase coming into use to encompass the theatrical and literary explosion, associated with Shakespeare, that occurred late in Elizabeth’s reign and continued during that of James I) and Belloc’s “The Night” contrasting with the quaintly daft “The Fox” and the unscheduled (or at least not announced in the programme) “Captain Strachan’s Fancy”, a song about rum – principally Henry Morgan’s. “The Fox” was inspired by the stuffed fox-head in a pub Warlock used to frequent. Somehow Allen had located the actual taxidermied head, and brought it along!

Then it was back to the sea for the final two sections. The first, Allen explained, included some of his favourite sea-songs, conjuring up an image of him, as a youngster, on his “beloved Farne Islands (they don’t only belong to Bill Oddie)”, singing the sad lament “O Waly, Waly”. This was followed by James Frederick Keel’s “Trade Winds” to John Masefield’s rhythmical text and a wonderful Haydn pastiche on British prowess at sea in his “Sailor’s Song”, with “only a little bit of war-mongering.”

To introduce the final section, Tom Allen was amused to read us an extract from an 1847 reminiscence of Admiral Nelson, with particular reference to Nelson’s manservant – a bluff Norfolk man – who just happened to be called Tom Allen! The curious meeting between him and the King of Naples that saw the latter somewhat surprised to be gripped in a manly handshake when he was more used to his hand being kissed and being addressed as “Mr King” offered further smiles before a second sad lament in “Tom Bowling” and a return to John Masefield for John Ireland’s setting of “Sea Fever”.

Allen – ever the consummate artist – has lost none of his charm and even if the purity of tone now sometimes slips, there is no better and more popular personality on the recital platform. Accompanied with genuine affection and her usual fine touch, Imogen Cooper seemed as happy-to-be-there as the audience. With time running out (and I’m not sure this actually made the live broadcast) we were given an encore, Schubert’s setting of Heine’s “Das Fischermädchen” – and, of course, we would have loved some more!

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