Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Toby Spence and friends at Milton Court: Butterworth, Britten and Janacek

Julian, Toby, Lucy Waring, Emily Kyte and Claire Bournez
To Milton Court Concert Hall at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for Toby Spence's wonderful recital, with Julian Milford accompanying.

They began with Butterworth's Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad of which I had previously heard two, and it was a real revelation what a sensitive composer Butterworth was: greatly helped by having two such superb interpreters who like Butterworth both studied at Oxford.

The poet of A Shropshire Lad, AE Housman, has been a figure in my imagination since my schooldays when I came across his "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy" with lines like:
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Then wave your hand, to signify as much.
and this classic exchange:
Traveller: A shepherd's questioned mouth informed me that--
Chorus:    What? for I know not yet what you will say.*
Traveller: Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
However Houseman was a very serious scholar and quite a deep poet. He failed his degree in Oxford, worked (like Einstein) as a clerk in the Patent Office, but established such a reputation as a private scholar that he became Professor of Latin at UCL and then at Cambridge!

Four songs by Britten followed, two somewhat mournful (O Waly, Waly and There's none to soothe) and then Toby announced "enough of this serious stuff" and produced two comic folk-songs set by Britten: The Crocodile which was a sailor's Tall Tale of being swallowed by an Enormous Crocodile (500 miles long, with a mouth 36 miles high) and a charming setting of Sally in our Alley.

The second half was Janacek's monumental The Diary of One Who Disappeared about a ploughman called Janicek who is seduced by and runs off with a gypsy girl called Zefka. There are 21 songs, mostly for the Tenor but some for a female trio and some for a Mezzo as Zefka.Claire Bournez, who sang Zefka, was striking in many respects: a lovely voice very well suited to the part, nice looking and with amazing long dark hair much commented on by the ladies afterwards.  Zefka's seduction technique is disarmingly simple:
Can it really be that I arouse such fear?
Sit here closer to me - must you keep your distance?
Or does my complexion alarm you?
I am not so dark as you might think;
Here, where the sun does not reach, I am quite a different colour!

Trio: She pulled back her blouse, revealing her breast
And all the blood in his body rushed to his head
The whole performance was a triumph, much applauded after the final tremendous song when Janicek finally leaves his village to live with Zefka and their son, though as Toby said no encore because how can you top that?

We had drinks afterwards and met some of Toby's delightful friends. A great evening. Catch anything by Toby of course - but look out also for Claire Bournez.

 * though I'd always remembered it as "Speak, for I know not what you are going to say!"

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