Lunchtime Recital: The House of Life

Sophie Swithinbank relishes Bedford Park tradition

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We are gathered in The Studio - Blenheim Road - an incredibly appropriate venue custom built for small concert gatherings. The ceilings are high and arched, perfecting the acoustic reverberations. The air is cool, even while beams of sunlight pour through the thick glass windows. We wait in anticipation for the performance to ensue.

It was these concerts, indeed, that began the Bedford Park Society who wanted Bedford Park to remain intact, as it was, according to Sir John Betjeman in the Daily Telegraph in 1960, ‘the most significant suburb built in the last century’, and should not be developed into flats. They raised money for this campaign through local fundraising concerts, and the Bedford Park Festival grew from there.

The concert begins with Schubert’s ‘An Die Musik’, a homage to music itself. Nicholas Armour’s baritone voice captivates me immediately. His capable voice is smooth, soft and full of life, transporting me to a world of sunny English gardens. With confident and well-practiced piano accompaniment from Giles Ridley, Armour glides easily from phase to phrase.

Nicholas Armourís baritone voice captivates me immediately

The recital proceeds to integrate seven diverse composers, from Schumann to Britten. Amongst the highlights were Fauré’s ‘Lydia – Clair De Lune’, in which Armour articulates ‘Ly-di-ya’ in a particularly sumptuous way. Chausson’s ‘Le Colibri’ (‘The Hummingbird’) was the most exotic of the performances with Armour rolling his tongue in back flips and images of bamboo trees that sound like the sea and hibiscus blowing in the breeze.

However, I will largely focus of ‘The House of Life’, a cycle of sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, set to music by Vaughan Williams in 1904. Although Vaughan Williams was best known for his symphonies and large-scale choral pieces, these short English Art songs amplify the lyricism of the English language in a way that a larger, louder piece never could, since English, as a language, is traditionally polite and neither large nor loud in is execution. My initial thought was that ‘The House of Life’ sounded oddly contemporary, refreshingly pure and simple compared with Romanic, word-painting, illustrative music like Schubert’s, poplar at the end of the nineteenth centaury.

The themes of love, death, wings, light and seasons recur throughout the sonnets. In the first, ‘Lovesight’, Rossetti presents the mysterious image of, ‘Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage’. There appears to be a ‘glimmering’ shadowiness over this ‘Lovesight’, an uncertainty as sight seems to be at odds, in shadow. Armour valiantly crescendos for Rossetti’s closing lines,

How then should sound upon Life’s darkening slope
The ground-whirl of the perished leaves of Hope,
The wind of Death’s imperishable wing?

Here, the theme of wings appears. The music, in an easy triple meter, evokes the airiness of flying, twinned with the mysteriousness, and often loneliness one associates with birds. Thanks to Ridley, that ‘ground-whirl’ of perished love is really audible and the sonnet flows emotively, as it should.

In the next sonnet, ‘Silent Noon’, the rise and fall of the music perfectly illustrates an English summer’s breeze; it rises and you get a little chill, and then falls to allow the gentle heat of the English sun to warm your skin. This chilling and warming music is, of course, inspired by Rossetti’s stunning imagery:

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,—
The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
…'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:—
…This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.

There are no kinks in this silky language, nor in the music it is set to. The images here are so strong, that one cannot listen to it without being transported on the wing of a dragonfly around the long grass of the gleaming pastures. Diminuendos present that ‘visible silence’, which Armour handles gently and expertly. This is certainly the most love-bound and optimistic of the sonnets and Ridley picks up all the trills, while Armour’s voice is plausibly filled with joy.
The recital was part of a beautiful tradition with many people meeting friends of old. Let me insert Rossetti here to describe, ‘this close-companioned inarticulate hour’, which was not inarticulate at all but it is simply difficult to articulate how refreshing it was to listen to such pure music. Long may the tradition last.

Sophie Swithinbank

Lunchtime Recital: The House of Life was part of the Bedford Park Festival which continues until 28th June

June 19, 2015

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