A glorious Spring weekend in Ludlow was further elevated by another superb festival of English Song, greatly enjoyed by many people, including some welcome new faces, as well as regulars from previous Ludlow English Song Weekends. In and around the concerts and other events, there was a lovely sense of friendship and shared enthusiasm.

This year we had the benefit of fruitful and valued partnerships – with BBC Radio 3, and a new one with English National Opera’s Harewood Artist Scheme. All the song concerts were recorded by the BBC and will be transmitted in lunchtime recitals on Radio 3 on 14-17th May. That noted scion of Shropshire, Ian Skelly, introduced all the concerts from the stage in his inimitable style, and the BBC technical staff were discreet and very professional throughout. It was great to know that the very fine performances, to which we listened with such pleasure, were going to be made available to a wider audience.

All the solo singers at this year’s Weekend were members of the ENO Harewood Artist scheme, who were able to explore a wide range of song in English, to complement their work on the operatic stage. Overall, they brought a tremendous freshness of approach as well as dramatic vitality to the wide range of works that they brought to life for us. Each of them explored songs that were ideally suited to their voices, and that also elicited a spirited approach. We had a strong sense that there is a new generation of excellent singers, who can carry the torch of this wonderful genre.

LESW-19 was also very memorable for the wide range of instrumental timbres alongside the singers. Michael Foyle’s violin blended and wove around the voices with skill and deftness of touch, and his participation opened up a seam of song for that was new for many of us. For example, the way that he literally hovered around Alex Otterburn’s baritone in Martin Bussey’s The Windhover was extraordinarily effective. His rendition, with Iain Burnside, of Elgar’s Violin Sonata was wonderful – singing, in its own way.

Sean Shibe brought a focus and intimacy in a concert with three singers, wholly accompanied by him on guitar, together with solo pieces (“a lot of notes”, as he noted afterwards!). The acoustic at St Laurence’s Church also worked beautifully for the guitar. Julian Bream had inspired some of the works we heard, and Sean’s superb playing shows him to be a brilliant current member of that lineage, justly the recipient of major awards. Benjamin Britten’s Songs from the Chinese were magically explored by William Morgan, followed by the striking contrast of Tippett’s Songs for Achilles, heroically delivered by Elgan Llŷr Thomas – his chants of “Oi-o, o, o” both terrifying and chilling.

As ever, we were treated to the extraordinary pianism of Iain Burnside, in very widely repertoire. His flexibility and evocation of many moods, as well as his gently reassuring presence at the piano, were once again in evidence. I have no doubt that all the singers will have benefitted greatly from working with him on these pieces. Iain’s range was well exemplified by the seeming ease with which he and the singers encompassed a journey, in the last concert, from Roger Quilter and Elizabeth Maconchy, through Gurney, Browne and Vaughan Williams, to Bussey and Edward Rushton, and ending with Gerald Finzi, with singers Soraya Mafi, David Webb and Alex Otterburn – all in glorious voice.

Of course, Iain as Artistic Director is behind the extraordinary programming and juxtapositions that are the hallmark of Ludlow English Song Weekends. This year was an exceptional example of him bringing us works that are not well enough known, as well as providing new context for those that are familiar. The crafting and sequencing were so subtle and natural that one could easily miss how they were achieved. Cognoscenti appreciated his skills, while regular punters just relished the ride!

We were treated to a delightful range of English choral works by the fine and disciplined Bath Camerata, directed by Benjamin Goodson, balancing John Ireland, Gerald Finzi & Percy Grainger with contemporary works by Will Todd, Huw Watkins, Roderick Williams & Jonathan Dove. Eleanor Alberga gently guided this year’s Young Composers in workshop and performances by students from the Royal Northern College of Music; these fine new works were very varied in range and showed fresh skills at work in English Song. Susan Bullock gave a fine Masterclass with the RNCM students, enabling them to bring extra drama to their choice of songs, and to extract every ounce from the texts.

Alex Woolf, a Young Composer last year, wrote this year’s commissioned work, a superbly crafted and lyrical composition, Quiet London, exquisite settings of prose (sung by tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas) and poetry (sung by soprano Rowan Pierce) of Louise Guiney, a 19th Century American writer who lived in London. We benefited from two performances, as the programme had to be adjusted because one singer was indisposed. Hearing many contemporary works, new generations of both composers and singers, and the fresh approach that they took, gave the Weekend a real sense of ‘English Song’ as a ‘Living Art’.

In addition to the concert programme, we were enchanted by Tony Palmer’s remarkable film about Ralph Vaughan Williams, which he introduced. In addition, Katy Hamilton again chaired three informative and entertaining panel discussions with a wide range of expert and experienced panellists – I won’t attempt to summarise what they covered, but suffice it to say that we were all much enriched for their lively and well-informed contributions.

This year, all the concerts took place at St Laurence’s Church, because of the extensive refurbishment work in the main building at Ludlow Assembly Rooms. We are deeply indebted to the staff, PCC and volunteers at this magnificent church for all the extra help they gave in hosting us. The Weekend closed with Festival Evensong, the last in the very capable hands of Shaun Ward, who has been a great support to our endeavours, and to whom we give our thanks and good wishes. The team at the Assembly Rooms gave invaluable support through the booking and all the events that took place in the rear building, and much appreciate their help, and that of caterers Oak-Apple, during this transition.

This was the third year of LESW as an annual event, under the aegis of Ludlow Song, now a registered charity, and I salute my fellow-Trustees for their vital background work. We enormously appreciate and value the financial support of Arts Council England, substantive grants from other Trusts and Foundations and our personal donors, as well as partners, ENO and BBC. This was the third and final year in the thoughtful and skilled hands of our Administrator, Aileen Morrison, who has done so much to consolidate the festival. We are delighted to announce that she is being succeeded (from mid-May 2019) by Steve Catanach, a skilled administrator from other settings and Ludlow resident!

Ludlow English Song Weekend 2020 will run from 3rd to 5th April. Watch this space for further details.

Professor Anthony J Pinching
Chairman, Ludlow Song