Review: Celebrating the music of the Bard as part of St Albans Shakespeare Festival

West Side Story

West Side Story - Credit: Archant

There was just a touch of the Victorian musical evening when the Godlee family and friend set out to entertain with the songs of Shakespeare at St Saviour’s Church in St Albans on Friday.

The three Godlee doctors, bass Julian, cellist Rickman and amateur actress Fiona together with their friend, distinguished conductor composer and, in this case, pianist, Stephen Barlow, joined forces to present an evening of songs and readings to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and launch the city’s musical celebration of the event.

Not all the songs and music were Shakespeare’s words but all had a greater of lesser connection to the bard. And composers ranged from Henry VIII and Henry Purcell to Leonard Bernstein and Cole Porter.

While Julian is well known in and around St Albans as a good bass singer, his older brother Rickman is now retired and lives in Devon. His musical friendship with Stephen Barlow dates back to when they were members of the National Youth Orchestra and both developed a continuo partnership supporting Peter Pearce at Snape Maltings.

Fiona, now Editor in Chief of the British Medical Journal, has taken part in more than 30 plays and provided the readings from Shakespeare.

Having opened the concert with works by Purcell and Handel with their settings of non-Shakespearean words, the three musicians moved on to Schubert’s well known setting of Who is Sylvia and, from The Tempest, the Thomas Arne setting of Where the bee sucks together with Purcell’s setting of Arise ye subterranean wind.

Julian rounded off the first half of the concert with Roger Quilter’s delightful settings of Shakespeare songs, Come Away Death, O Mistress mine and Blow blow thou winter wind, together with Go Lovely Rose, Barbara Allen and Drink to me only.

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Although not as complex as some of the earlier works the Quilter songs have their own distinct appeal and are well suited to Julian’s voice.

Cello and piano interludes were provided with a Handel Air and Gavotte, as well as delightful Dances for cello by the 17th century French composer Marin Marias.

For me some of the finest songs came at the start of the second half with four of the five songs in Gerald Finzi’s Shakespearian cycle Let Us Garlands Bring. Again these are works ideally suited to Julian’s voice and have a beautiful simplicity on the ear.

A fine performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves followed and after his setting of Orpheus with his lute, more cello music by Enio Moriconne from La Califfa.

The official part of the programme came to an end with Somewhere from Leonard Bernstein’s opera West Side story.

But there was one more real treat in store when Rickman joined Julian for a rib-tickling rendition of Brush Up Your Shakespeare from Kiss Me Kate, a fine ending to a diverse and pleasing evening.