Vaughan Williams
O Mistress mine; The Willow Song; Come away, death
Chorale after an Old French Carol; Shepherd’s Carol
The Tyger; The Lamb
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – Spring
Four Shakespeare Songs [Come away, death; Lullaby; Double, Double, Toil and Trouble; Full Fathom Five]
Full Fathom Five
Vaughan Williams
Three Shakespeare Songs [Full Fathom Five; The cloud-capp’d towers; Over hill, over dale]

Stephen Layton

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 30 July, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Stephen Layton formed polyphony in 1986. What a joy it was to hear the human voice exploring these works, the thread of which seemed to be Shakespeare the dramatist. Christopher Cook, presenting the concert for BBC Radio 3, asked Layton why composers are attracted to Shakespeare. His response was simple: Shakespeare is familiar, created excellent characters, fully understood their emotions, and produced great drama. There were also words from William Blake (Tavener and Holten) and W. H. Auden (Britten); Auden’s centenary falls this year.

Within “Shepherd’s Carol” there were some excellent solo contributions, notable for clear diction and empathy for the words. In particular, the mezzo solo (“If I’d stacked up the velvet”) was humorously sung, as it should be, and the soprano solo (“But my cuffs are soiled and fraying”) was incredibly moving. Haunting and aching would aptly describe the performance of “The Lamb” whereas, in places, “The Tyger” was an aural overload, though Layton drew out, in expert fashion, the music’s contrapuntal lines.

Jaakko Mäntyjärvi’s cycle of four Shakespeare texts started with a moving account of “Come away, death”. The sense of desolation at the close was palpable and the protests of “Not a flower, not a flower sweet” were heart-rending. “Lullaby” (inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) was childish but with an edge, the bass singers bringing an undercurrent of something dark and hidden. There were moments of humour, too, in the Act Four ‘Witches scene’ from “Macbeth”, which, one suspects, are not entirely intentional: lines such as “Finger of birth-strangled child” did not have the horror they should.

“Full Fathom Five”, from “The Tempest” contains that great word invention of Shakespeare’s: “sea-change”. Three very different takes on this text were presented. Frank Martin’s was much calmer than Mäntyjärvi’s. It seemed ideal music for any group called Polyphony and was ideally characterised here. The texture of the music was so rich that one could believe one was under water. A searching out-look pervaded Vaughan Williams’s treatment, and seemed to anticipate John Adams: the sense of calmness under water could be felt throughout.

The rapid, rolling themes of VW’s ‘Over hill, over dale’ brought to an end this all-too-brief odyssey through great English literature, though there was an extra, an incredibly poignant account of Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep” to send us into the bright sunshine of Sloane Square.

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