St James’ Church, Chipping Campden ****

From the Coronation, stopping off briefly in Brazil, to Chipping Campden Music Festival, this has been the itinerary over the past week or so for Roderick Williams, internationally-acclaimed baritone as well as a prolific composer.

Here he displayed both talents to a packed audience, soloist in his own orchestration of Butterworth’s song-cycle A Shropshire Lad. The bleakness of Housman’s poetry, already well-defined in the original piano accompaniments, reaches out hauntingly in Williams’ scorings, which, combined with his characteristically confiding vocal delivery, making intimates of us all, creates a chilling experience.

The performance here was preceded by Butterworth’s cowpat Banks of Green Willow, leading directly into “Loveliest of Trees”, woodwind interweaving like burgeoning blossom. Orchestrations throughout were understanding and apt, and the sadness of “The Lads in their Hundreds” will long remain.

But most memorable of all was the concluding “Is my team ploughing?”, Williams’ two voices (very much in the manner of Schubert’s ErlKing) matched by complementary orchestrations, the one seeming to come from an ethereal distance.

Thomas Hull and the remarkable Festival Academy Orchestra provided a sympathetic collaboration, bookending this wonderful experience with a somewhat workaday Bizet L’Arlesienne Suite no.2 (lovely flute and harp duetting), and an admirably efficient Stravinsky Firebird Suite.

The orchestra (a combination of professionals and gifted students) is but one of Charlie Bennett’s achievements during his 20 years as Festival Director. Through his contacts and friendly persuasiveness he has brought world-class performers to this charming Cotswolds town (including the world’s greatest pianist, flanked by many others), and attracted an audience of the great and good, and now he is standing down, leaving the Festival in two experienced pairs of hands.

As a detail, we in the audience have been much informed by the beautifully-produced programme-book, though disappointingly anonymous in its provenance. In the wider picture, what more can we do but thank Charlie Bennett for his enterprise in bringing his magnificent vision to fruition.

It seems to have something to do with the Cotswolds water; look at Longborough Festival Opera, just down the road!

Christopher Morley


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