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An English Orpheus
An English Orpheus

It's a brave and sure-footed singer who dares to go the full nine yards, vocally speaking, in front of one of the world's most adroit and knowledgeable audiences - the denizens of the Wigmore Hall in London. But wooing the Grand old dame of recital venues holds no fear for such a seasoned serenader as Sir Thomas Allen.

The first half of Allen's concert takes us from Purcell to Britten in a single bound. Following a charming opening taster from John Ireland, If there were dreams to sell, Allen delves straight into a into a brace of songs by Purcell. The first remains one of the greatest songs written to an English text, Music for a While, a song of genius and a worthy English precursor to Schubert's An Die Musik (To Music). The second of Purcell's offering is, in fact, four songs rolled into one, all taken from the incidental music to a stage play and forming something akin to a suite from an opera or musical, Let the dreadful engines (from Don Quixote). There's some great bawdy stuff here, and perhaps a parental advisory sticker might be in order if you're under 18 years!

Listen to the songs:

  John Ireland: If there were dreams to sell

  Henry Purcell: Music for a While (from Orpheus Britannicus Vol.2)

  Henry Purcell: Let the dreadful engines (from Don Quixote)

On to Benjamin Britten's setting of Thomas Hardy's posthumously published collection of poems, Winter Words. Britten's settings are sparse, devoid of too much decoration, like trees in Winter stripped of their foliage, and reflect the poet's tender and evocative thoughts on life and death. Thomas Allen is in his element here, leading us gently by the hand through this exquisite mini-cycle of eight songs.

At day-close in November uses the planting of trees to remind us of the mutability of all things and Midnight on the Great Western [Railway] takes innocence abroad in the shape of a young lad travelling alone while Wagtail and Baby uses innocence to detect what Chaucer called "the smiler with the knife under his cloak". The little old table, if it could talk would tell of its beholder's lost love. The choirmaster's burial is a charming tale of wish-fulfilment and provides one of the few humorous points, however dark, in the whole piece. The final three songs, Proud songsters, At the railway station, Upway and Before life and after continue to develop the theme of looking at life from either side - through two gasses darkly, it must be said. The solace in the piece is the return to a time before birth - "A time there was...when all went well" - a time before regret, sickness and love and loss, a time of innocence, perhaps to return when the mortal coil has finally been shuffled off.

  Listen to the complete first half of Sir Thomas Allen's recent Wigmore Hall Recital and watch out for the livelier and equally though-provoking second half, due for webcasting in just a few weeks.



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