2022-23 Concert Reviews

Shropshire-born Mary Webb, famous for her poetry ad prose, provided the inspiration for “A Shropshire Lass”; this is an evening of song and verse by Webb herself or inspired by her. The Marches Songbook is an assembly of poets, composers, singers, two pianists, a violinist and a guitarist who between them have a formidable range of CVs. Together they presented “A Shropshire Lass” at the Maidment Building, Shrewsbury School.

To pull the evening together and provide context The Mary Webb Society had provided an attractive exhibition about their heroine and her work.

Poet Jean Atkin opened the programme; Jean has a beautiful speaking voice; her respect and love for Mary Webb’s work was clear from the beginning and her own verse captured the wild intensity of Mary’s writing. “The crossing keeper of Eardington” was delicate, sensitive and looked back to the Shropshire so loved by Mary Webb. “Here be elephants”, on the other hand, was hilarious- but also recapturing a Shropshire moment when the circus came to town!

Tenor William Smith, accompanied by pianist Simon Bate, provided the first music; “Sky”, a poem by Andrew Rudd, set to music by Paul Henley. This was an excellent choice for an opener for the text captured perfectly the eerie feeling of Mary Webb’s writing. The collaboration of Mr. Smith’s controlled, expressive singing and Mr. Bate’s sensitive piano playing set the standard for an evening of superb music making.

Patrick Larley is a multi-instrumentalist and composer. His sonata for violin and piano is a finely crafted work whose three movements were played separately throughout the evening. Violinist Marianne Haynes, with Patrick Larley at the piano, gave a sublime performance of a work which was so appropriate for the programme.

The central, lengthy work was “Shropshire Lass”, Martin Hussey’s compositions for nine poems by Mary Webb sung by soprano Holly Teague who received superb accompaniment from Michael Matthews on guitar. The poems are exquisite, often melancholy, always atmospheric, always highly original in their choice of vocabulary. “August 1914” is a welcome alternative to the poetry of the first world war whereas “Swallows” swoops and turns before the line

“We sing our song in beauty’s fading tree,”

Such glorious words and Holly’ beautiful soprano with a little semi-staging gave wonderful expression to them. At times having music written for the upper reaches of the soprano voice gave her a real challenge but the overall effect was absolutely mesmerising.

This was an evening of sheer delight, given by a group of hugely talented and enthusiastic performers supported by equally talented composers. Hopefully we will hear more from the Marches Songbook in our Border County.

Andrew Petch

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