Virelai (Sus une fontayne)
Eight Songs for a Mad King
Leigh Melrose (baritone)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 16 June, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Ray Davies (of The Kinks’ fame and beyond, a ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ in the 1960s) is the latest curator of Southbank Centre’s Meltdown festival. He has included Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies in his selections.
Two sides of Birtwistle’s creativity occupied the concert’s first half. The sheet of paper (a handout) that passed for a programme simply identified Virelai (without the bracketed part of its title) as “recent”. Would it not have been possible to report 2008? Five minutes long, Virelai – for woodwind and string quartets, plus double bass, and trumpet and trombone – states Birtwistle’s interest in medieval music. It’s a witty and exquisitely judged study. Given that sheet of paper was short of information, maybe this was a UK premiere? London Sinfonietta has previously played Virelai in Turin (Elgar Howarth) and Krakow (David Atherton).
Secret Theatre (1984), the title from Robert Graves, is a pulsating and glinting score, music (typical of its composer) that ritualises and also looks at similar aspects from different perspectives, with players required to move and play standing from the (left) side of the ensemble (made up of a selection from the four instrumental hierarchies) as a whole. Secret Theatre is an exhilarating ride – intense and vivid with contrasts of stillness (Philippa Davies’s flute solo liquidly expressive) and involving an increasing awareness of ghostly defragmentation, a solo viola (Paul Silverthorne) left at the close to ask a two-note question. Swiss-born Baldur Brönnimann led a brilliant performance.
Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969, first heard in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, 22 April that year) was written by Peter Maxwell Davies to a text by Randolph Stow for the actor Roy Hart (1926-74, he died in a car accident). The King is George III and the half-hour music-theatre piece traces his decline to insanity (and he arrives pretty loopy). No birdcages for the six musicians on this occasion as the royal personage dialogues with his instrumental feathered-friends. Musically, the extended playing techniques and eclectic style – from antiquity to nightclub plus birdsong – all add to the very particular flavour of the piece (presumably Richard Casey’s attending to the inside of the piano was a timbral substitute for the dulcimer). Leigh Melrose (modern dress) gave a tour de force of a performance, every wail and word from memory, and when required to sing, did so with mellifluousness. Simon Blendis’s violin won’t be the same again though – okay it was a prop, supplied by Dots Music Shop (perhaps Dotty under the circumstances). Finally HRH is hounded off the stage by a walking bass drum…
Of our knighted composers, both born in 1934, Sir Harry was present, Sir Peter was not.