The Will-o’-the-Wisps Go To Town

The Will-o’-the-Wisps Go To Town [world premiere]
Peer Gynt – Incidental Music (selection)

Simon Callow (narrator)

Yvette Bonner (soprano)
Helene Gjerris (mezzo-soprano)
Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor)

Schola Cantorum of Oxford
CBSO Symphony Chorus and Youth Chorus
Members of the CBSO Youth Orchestra

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Rumon Gamba

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 April, 2005
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth has led the Society for the Publication of Danish Music to commission ten ‘symphonic fairy-tales’ from Danish composers, with that by Per Nørgård – his country’s leading composer, indeed one of the most significant creative figures at work today – receiving its premiere at this. There is no more persuasive counter to the image of Andersen as a children’s author from the past than “The Will-o’-the-Wisps are in Town, the Marsh Witch Said – the (purposely) unfinished tale from 1865 which forms the end-piece to his collected stories. And, as treated by Nørgård in this ‘fairy-tale cantata’, it leaves an intriguing and often disturbing resonance.

Much of the intrigue stems from what it is that the will-o’-the-wisps unleash when they arrive in town. Andersen left his readers in the dark about this, and Nørgård has collaborated with author Suzanne Brøgger in an outcome as provisional as it is relevant. The 44-minute work comprises ten scenes, together with a Prologue that prepares the action and an Epilogue that tentatively infers a ‘moral’.

The ‘1864 Overture’, evoking Denmark’s disastrous war with Prussia in the composer’s most bitingly illustrative manner, leads into the Prologue which establishes a three-layered interplay of soloists, chorus (townspeople) and children’s chorus (will-o’-the-wisps). The former includes a narrator – ‘The Man’ (Andersen) – who searches for inspiration, a soprano and tenor who comment on the narrative as members of the chorus, and a mezzo who relates the Marsh Witch in a vividly pantomimic brand of sprechgesang. The first seven scenes bring the story to the point where Andersen breaks off, then the climactic eighth scene depicts the mayhem that the will-o’-the-wisps unleash upon the town.

All to no avail, however, as the chaos likely to be envisaged 140 years ago is little compared to the fracturing inherent in present-day Western society – such as is pointed out in Brøgger’s text. What remains in the Epilogue is the potential of a fairy-tale to draw attention to the ‘real world’ in an ironic but unflinching manner: a metaphoric knocking at the door that can maybe make us think again.

This is an ambitious concept and is, at times, realised brilliantly. The main narrative perhaps has a little too much spoken text, such as might diffuse the musical impact on repeated hearing, and with the conflation of dramatic and abstract elements (intentionally?) rather loosely defined when compared to earlier Nørgård’s cantatas. On the other hand, the scene of attempted mayhem is a breathless confrontation of rhythmic complexity and rhyming games in a musical framework as diverse as it is lucid, and the work is brought to its summation by the Epilogue’s luminously ambivalent harmonies.

The performance, obviously the result of intensive preparation, was both vivid and convincing. Simon Callow drew on his full range of acting expression to articulate the narration, while Helene Gjerris held the stage with a Marsh Witch of wild-eyed charisma. Yvette Bonner and Richard Edgar-Wilson were unfailingly musical, while the chorus and – most particularly – youth choruses excelled in projecting a sense of engagement with the narrative and its implications. Not all the musical facets came through as intended – the percussion ensemble sounding too reticent on this occasion – but Rumon Gamba maintained a momentum such as ensured audience involvement right through to the close. An entertaining and engrossing piece that, perhaps with some readjustment of the text, ought to find many outlets – not least for its imaginative combining of professional and amateur performers.

Coupling such a work is not easy, but the extended suite from Grieg’s Peer Gynt worked well. Simon Callow returned with what seemed to be his own précis of Ibsen’s poetic but never abstruse verse drama – not an encapsulation, but an effective-overall context for the 12 items that were played. A pity the ribald ‘Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter’ was jettisoned, but good that ‘The Death of Åse’ was heard both as interlude and melodrama (a most moving passage in the play itself), and that Solveig’s two numbers were heard as vocal items. Sung in English translation, these were redolent of a bygone age when such pieces were Promenade staples, and Yvette Bonner’s elegance was a distinct plus. Excellent too was the orchestral playing, notably in the sustained eloquence of ‘Ingrid’s Lament’ and the never-cloying sentiment of ‘Morning Mood’. A pity the diversity of Grieg’s score works against its convincing concert presentation, but this hour-long selection renewed admiration for the music and was a reminder of how a familiar story only becomes more topical and provocative through time.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 4 April at 7.30
  • CBSO

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