Jane Manning: A 65th-Birthday Celebration (19 October)

Piano Trio
Poems of Edward Thomas [London premiere]
Ca’ the Yowes [World premiere of new version]
Music by Shakespeare [World premiere]
Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21

Jane Manning (soprano)

Jane’s Minstrels
Roger Montgomery

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 October, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Anyone who cut their teeth – contemporary-wise – in the 1970s and ’80s UK music scene will hardly need reminding of the importance of Jane Manning as a performer of, advocate for and all-round force in new vocal music. A 65th birthday celebration was a must on this year’s concert calendar, and who better to join her than the members of Jane’s Minstrels – the group of musicians she put together for all manner of collaborations, and itself celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.

The programme was astutely designed to give both Manning and Minstrels the limelight separately and together. Three of the latter opened proceedings with Judith Weir’s Piano Trio – a spirited and sensitive evocation of images, respectively Venetian, African and Hebridean, with that calculated sense of spontaneity that Weir had made absorbingly her own. It was natural that music by Anthony Payne – Manning’s husband of many years – would feature, and his Poems of Edward Thomas brought out the humour and pensiveness of Thomas’s verse in full measure – culminating in a luminous setting of the evergreen ’Adlestrop’. It is as well to note here that, while Manning’s voice has lost little of its agility and articulation, the roundness and projection of tone is not what it was – making it difficult sometimes to follow the vocal line against Payne’s detailed but restrained writing for piano quartet.

Something of this was also true of Thea Musgrave’s reworking of Ca’ the Yowes – ingeniously embedding Burns’s original tune into a dense but vibrant instrumental texture – but Matthew King’s Music by Shakespeare side-stepped the problem through an imaginative approach to instrumental texture and colour over five settings. Opening with a lightly-drawn version of Caliban’s “Be not Afeard” from The Tempest, and closing with the latter half of Lorenzo’s address to Jessica from The Merchant of Venice, the cycle showed King to be an innovative and individual dramatic composer in the making.

The second half opened with Libra – the most scintillating of the series of chamber pieces that mark out Roberto Gerhard’s final decade. Roger Montgomery conducted ably, but the overall feel was a shade tentative – with each section not quite melding into the next, and the poetic coda lacking in emotional depth.

Performance-wise, the best came last. Manning has been ’singing’ (the word is used here advisedly!) Pierrot Lunaire for more years than she may care to remember, and the sheer character of the present account renewed one’s admiration for this ever-fascinating, ever-original vocal cycle. There were flaws – not least a restive “Mondestrunken” and rather gabbled “Madonna” in Part One – but the feeling invested in “Der Kranke Mond”, the fervid intensity of “Rote Messe” and the finely-judged transition in Part Three – from the heady disorientation of “Heimweh” to the fractured nostalgia of “O Alter Duft” – were breathtaking in their vocal control and ensemble interplay. Pierrot is a work able to take a variety of approaches between song and speech, but Jane Manning’s nominally ’centrist’ interpretation has lost little of its precision and gained much in insight since her recording with Simon Rattle and the Nash Ensemble almost three decades ago.

Mention of which acts as a reminder to complement the Park Lane Group on the general excellence of the programme-book. With detailed notes (and texts) on music and performers, a number of tributes from friends and colleagues, an extensive biographical chronology (future biographers could well start their research here) and a largely-complete (though not error-free) discography, it served as a welcome memento of an enjoyable and sometimes demanding occasion. One hardly feels that Jane Manning would have had it any other way.

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