Concert proves an evening of adventure

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IT has, we understand, been a while since Bute Arts Society’s annual concert series last featured a male singer - but if the reception given to Phil Gault’s performance on Friday evening is anything to go by, the island’s classical music fans may not have to wait so long for something in a similar vein.

While there’s a lot to be said in favour of string quartets, piano duets and harp-and-flute combinations - all of which have appeared on the society’s programme this winter, to justified acclaim - there’s something a bit special about the simple combination of a piano and a rich baritone voice, and the programme for Friday promised much, with Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel suite followed by works from Schubert, Ravel and Samuel Barber, suggesting a real evening of adventure.

Songs of Travel, with lyrics based on poetry written by Robert Louis Stevenson, set the tone for an evening which was almost as much about stories as about songs; the cycle of nine songs, for those not familiar with them, follows the journey of a mystery man from adventurous youth to reflective old age, and everything else in between.

Schubert’s Lieder von Schwanengesang (‘swan song’) was slightly heavier going in musical terms, though that may have been down in part to subject matter - or, to be more precise, the provision for the audience of the English translation, which allowed all those present to follow in meticulous detail the character’s increasingly steep descent from the heights of love to the depths of despair.

Nonetheless, the performance was no less enjoyable for that, although the choice of two sets of three songs by Ravel to open the second half of the concert provided a welcome lighter note, with the portrayals of a peacock, a cricket and a swan providing Gault, accompanied throughout by his wife Claire Haslin on piano, with the perfect opportunity to underline his versatility.

The final set on the programme was a collection of songs by the American composer Samuel Barber, with the last of the four, A Green Lowland of Pianos, bringing the published programme to a close with a smile - a mood underlined by the encore, Peter Warlock’s light-hearted ode to the navyman’s best friend, Captain Stratton’s Fancy.

In the tradition of leaving the best until last, however, we reserve pride of place in this review to the beautiful selection of four Welsh songs arranged by Phil Gault himself.

Since he is a native of that country, that those should provide the high point of a hugely enjoyable evening may not come as too much of a surprise, but even so, his choices stirred the soul in a way certain to make any Scot wish we could create music like that.

The soaring majesty of Calon Lân (A Pure Heart) lost nothing for the lack of backing from a full-to-capacity Cardiff Arms Park, though even that was outshone by the beauty of his version of the traditional folk song Ar Lan Y Môr (On The Seashore), an arrangement guaranteed to tug at the tightest of heartstrings.

* The last of Bute Arts Society’s 2010-11 concerts, on March 18, will feature the very first performance of a brand new work by Oliver Sell, commissioned specifically for Argyll and Bute Concert Tours - more nearer the time...