Celebrations of the nation’s composers

30 June 2017

Roderic Dunnett reports from the English Music Festival and the English Song Weekend

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THE English Music Festival is one of two events in the first half of the year devoted to classical music from the British Isles. The other is the English Song Weekend, launched by the Finzi Friends, started in 2001, and based in Housman country.

Devised by the supreme cham­pion of English art song, the accom­panist Iain Burnside, the event, at Ludlow, in Shropshire, revives and incorporates many composers who have been more or less forgotten. It also embraces annually a new song commission — this year, from the young but well-established com­poser Tarik O’Regan. The English Music Festival, founded by the entrepreneur and enthusiast Em Marshall-Luck, is held in Dor­chester Abbey, in Ox­­ford­shire.

The festival has now reached its 11th year. The title this year was “The Spirit of England”, taken from Elgar’s work to a text by Henry Newbolt. The wealth of works covered was staggering: the first main concert alone in­­cluded two Vaughan Williams premières, his Overture Henry V and EFDS Folk Song March, both dating from the early 1930s; the première of a Concert Overture by Stanford; and the first ever performance of the Symphony in C minor by Montague Phillips (1885-1969), once a celebrated boy chor­ister from St Botolph’s, Bishops­­gate.

The names run on. On the festival’s own label, EM Records (www.em-records.com), works by Ivor Gurney, Robin Milford, Eugene Goossens, Roger Quilter, Madeleine Dring, Cyril Scott, Rutland Boughton, and others have been brought to new audiences. Both the concerts and the CDs (and also some published scores) have performed a sensational service to British, especially English, music.

Modern-day composers are not overlooked. Recently, we heard the première of David Owen Norris’s beautifully thoughtful choral work Prayerbook. Francis Pott is another honoured with a disc on his own, including his Sonata for Viola. Yet another is Paul Carr, whose en­­chant­ingly gentle and sympathetic Requiem for an Angel I first heard in Notting­ham (Arts, 16 May 2012). Now it has been revived at Dorchester, and what one found was a work that, although essenti­ally tonal (with some diverting touches of chromatism and modal­ity), is not in the least cloying.

In memory of his mother, a dis­tin­guished Covent Garden soprano soloist in the 1950s, the work comes across as deeply felt, in the main well judged in its contrasts, but, above all, wonderful for its inter­pol­ated texts: a poem by Emily Dickinson, a passage from St Teresa of Ávila translated by the poet Arthur William Symons (1865-1945), and a meltingly beautiful two-stanza, 12-line poem, “Do I love you?”, by the gay American poet Jack Larson.

Carr’s setting, with the polished Bristol Ensemble, under Benjamin Goodson, was undoubtedly a high­light of this visionary festival.

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