The Last Island
Fantasia upon all the notes [Nash Ensemble commission: world premiere]
Claire Booth (soprano)
Lionel Friend [as required]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 13 March, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The most substantial piece in the first half was Alexander Goehr’s Clarinet Quintet (2007). A more-complex instance of a one-movement structure, this evolves as a sequence of twelve sections with its musical substance derived from an initial motif following the example of masses by Josquin and Ockeghem. While this imparts a consistency, even austerity, to the musical content, it also generates an expressive logic in which the often-combative interplay between clarinet and string quartet offsets an intermittent lack of rhythmic variety. With Richard Hosford the unfailingly adept clarinettist, this is both an engrossing work and a persuasive achievement.
Colin Matthews drew on Rilke’s trailblazing volume Neue Gedichte for the three poems which make up his song-cycle The Island (2007). As translated by Stephen Cohn, these spare evocations of a North Sea island, made otherworldly through its isolation, readily invite musical setting and yet, despite eloquent singing from Claire Booth and committed playing under the expertise of Lionel Friend, the overall impression is of a bland uniformity, with little response to the qualities of each poem or to their cumulative overall vision: the “new directions” spoken of in relation to the third poem stubbornly failed to materialise.
After the interval came a welcome re-hearing of The Last Island (2009) by Peter Maxwell Davies. Taking inspiration from two islets bordering the Orkney island of Sanday, along with natural and man-made facets to be found there, it found the composer turning to the string sextet after an intensive involvement with the quartet medium. Its single movement alternates slow and fast sections with a formal intensification that leads to the climactic emergence of the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ plainchant often deployed by Davies, but seldom so atmospherically as here. In sustained emotional impact, indeed, this is as impressive as anything he has written over recent years.
The one first performance came courtesy of Harrison Birtwistle. Despite the Purcell overtones of its title and an instrumentation recalling Ravel, Fantasia upon all the notes (2012) has a formal freedom and expressive spontaneity typical of this composer’s more recent chamber output (above all the combative string quartet The Tree of Strings) that here finds the harp mediating with ever-greater alacrity in an ensemble otherwise comprising flute, clarinet and string quartet – climaxing in a visceral confrontation that then disintegrates into shards of sound echoing starkly into silence. Further hearings will doubtless reveal many further subtleties.
Illness likely prevented Jonathan Harvey from providing a new commission, yet it was no hardship to have a revival of Song Offerings (1985) – settings of four poems by Tagore which chart an emotional trajectory from anticipation, via expectancy and fulfilment, to a resignation in the knowledge of death as ultimate fulfilment. Its heightened atmosphere sustained by ecstatic vocal writing and luxurious instrumentation, this remains among the finest of the composer’s earlier works – its mesmeric qualities abundantly in evidence throughout a superb account by Booth and the Nash, and a captivating end to a well-planned and finely realised programme.