Butterworth, Finzi: Songs (Luxon/Willison)

Butterworth: Six Songs from A Shropshire LadBredon Hillother songs. Finzi: Earth and Air and Rain. Benjamin Luxon/David Willison (Argo)


The programme is nor only uncommonly well performed and admirably planned, like a model nswer to the examination question “Housman and Hardy: compare and contrast”. Here are two very distinct versions of pastoral. In the real county of Shropshire, all is complex fin de siècle artifice; in the imaginary county of Wessex, everything rings simply and timelessly true. So perhaps the former demands a highly inflected musical language, like that of the late C.W.Orr, for its proper interpretation. However, Housman’s heart (on the sleeve, at least) belongs to Butterworth. Nothing is said about the brain, though; and it is surely the whetstone of intelligence that gives Housman’s verse, like his classical criticism, its steely glitter and slicing edge.

     This goes like a knife through Butterworth, whose bland absorption often misses the point. Can “wearing white for Eastertide” really mean what the ringing music, donning its Sunday-best church-going modes, seek to imply? This pervasive dimness obscures the poetry. Even at first hearing we fear that the final phrase of When I was one and twenty is going to be feelingly repeated; and oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true. Fortunately, the essential brightness can be restored to the music by intelligent interpretation. Thus in Is my team ploughing the singer sounds more telling than the composer about why the lover is preferred to the ghost, the vertical man to the horizontal one.

     Finzi at least borrows his colour from the texts, and his shades of meaning are usually acceptable. His music is like closely-cupped hands adding resonance to the poet’s voice; and he can even enhance Hardy. Thus “My Lizbie Browne” releases a tenderness that lies locked on the page. Benjamin Luxon articulates the verse with an eloquence that is always compelling and often moving. The same service is performed for the piano parts by David Willison, whose sensitive playing has unobtrusive authority.

The Musical Times, Aug. 1976