Poems for Angus

Cinderella – Five Pieces [arr. Fichtenholz for violin and piano]
Poems for Angus [world premiere]
Divertimento Brillante on Themes from Bellini’s La Sonnambula

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)

Sergey Livitin & Melissa Ball (violins), Konstantin Boyarsky (viola), Christopher Vanderspar (cello), Tony Hougham (double bass) & Min-Jung Kym (piano)
Stuart MacRae [Poems for Angus]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 October, 2010
Venue: Crush Room, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This lunchtime recital at Royal Opera House featured a new work by Stuart MacRae (whose chamber opera “The Assassin Tree” was performed at the Linbury Studio Theatre some years ago. With an ensemble that consists of piano and string quartet (double bass replacing second violin), “Poems for Angus” draws on poems by Norman MacCaig as the basis for a song-cycle which is rich in images of death and transience, as well as a tenuous yet tangible sense of renewal.

The emphasis being on ‘the basis for’, as these six poems are never set literally: instead, the textual fragments are embedded in a musical context whose expressive intensity varies according to the nature of the verse, and with often-lengthy instrumental postludes to ensure continuity and cohesion over the sequence as a whole. A process that reaches its apogee with the final setting, in which the poem ‘Highland Funeral’ is absent; perhaps to be read as the ensemble gradually falls silent and the musicians leave the platform, leaving only detached chords from the piano to resonate into silence.

“Poems for Angus” was eloquently sung by Susan Bickley and admirably realised here by an ensemble under the attentive direction of the composer. No doubt it will be heard ‘north of the border’ before long (where MacCaig is regarded as a poet of some stature), though song-cycles with ensemble are never so abundant that a piece of so keenly evocative an atmosphere should not warrant revival.

Framing the MacRae premiere were selections of an altogether lighter manner. Mikhail Fichtenholz’s often-virtuosic transcription of five numbers from Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella was vividly rendered by Sergey Levitin and Min-Jung Kym, while Glinka’s early though by no means uncharacteristic and highly appealing potpourri on themes from Bellini’s opera had piano, string quartet and double bass touch on almost all of the famous set-pieces in what is a surprisingly close-knit and cumulative sequence: evidence, moreover, of a significant (and still under-appreciated) composer.

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