Prom 9: Late-night Triumphs

The Oriana Collection

The Triumphs of Oriana interspersed with new works to specially commissioned poems.

BBC/King’s Singers commission: world première #

All Creatures Now Are Merry Minded
Lightly she whipped o’er the Dales
Fair Nymphs, I heard one telling

The Wishing Tree (Kathleen Jamie) #
From ’Cartography’ (Jo Shapcott) #

Come, gentle swains
Hard by a crystal fountain

Ode to English (Gracie Nichols) #
Mobile (Andrew Motion) #
All the Queen’s Horses (U.A. Fanthorpe) #

Long live fair Oriana
Come, Blessed Bird

Royal Ring Road (Iain Sinclair) #
Leaves on the Line (Simon Armitage) #

Hence stars too dim of light
Calm was the air
As Vesta was from Latmos Hill descending

The King’s Singers

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 25 July, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The King’s Singers have undergone a number of personnel changes since the group started 34 years ago. It is good to report that into its fourth decade the sextet is still going strong in its latest incarnation with counter-tenors Robin Tyson and David Hurley, tenor Paul Phoenix, baritones Gabriel Crouch and Philip Lawson and bass Stephen Connolly. Worth mentioning each member given the quality of performance in this intriguing and well-planned Prom.

The idea was simple. In Queen Elizabeth the First’s fifth decade a number of composers came together to produce a song-cycle called “The Triumphs of Oriana”, Oriana being a favoured sobriquet of the Queen. In celebration of Queen Elizabeth the Second’s Golden Jubilee the King’s Singers and the BBC commissioned not only seven composers but also seven poets to collaborate in songs obviously not in fawning deference to the monarch but as a snapshot of early 21st-century Britain. In performance, groups of two or three of one collection were sung as a set before a spoken introduction to a group from the other set.

This worked well; the beauty of Elizabethan harmony perhaps melding into one (not least because each of “The Triumphs of Oriana” ends in the same couplet) so that I would be hard pushed at this single acquaintance to recognise my Farmer from my Cavendish (say). The new works were all interesting and it was intriguing to respond as much to the words as the music (even in modern opera, the composer is paramount, the librettist a necessary but all-too-often ignored component), and (this will come as little surprise to those who have read my review of this season’s first Chamber Music Prom, with my comments about Edith Sitwell’s hapless command of the English language) it was my reaction to the words that characterised my liking for each work.

A number of the poems I suspect will rapidly be consigned to the drawer marked ’out-dated’ and ’occasional’. Thus, despite scoring heavily on the humour factor, I suspect Andrew Motion’s “Mobile” in both describing and bewailing the invention that is the curse of the concert hall, will soon lose its cachet. Hearing Robin Tyson sing one of those annoying ringing tones, in Jocelyn Pook’s knowing scoring was funny, but would pall (like a mobile’s ring) at second hearing. Even some of the witticisms Motion worked in are already out-dated (i.e. ’T-mobile’ would not rhyme with ’dialling tone’ as did ’one-to-one’). Iain Sinclair’s typically dyspeptic diatribe about the M25, “Royal Ring Road” (I was intrigued to see his English was kept in better shape as poetry than his dense and desperate prose), engendered too little musical anger from John Harle’s flabby music, while Simon Armitage’s considered “Leaves on the Line” was given much more musical muscle in Dominic Muldowney’s setting. I suspect though that in years to come the excuse ’leaves on the line’ will need so much explaining that it will hamper the song’s promulgation.

Howard Goodall set U.A. Fanthorpe’s rather cringing lyrics about horses, those the Queen loves to watch racing, and those used on State occasions, so it was left to Joe Duddell, John McCabe and Joby Talbot to share the top honours, and not just because their respective poems had a definite sense of history. I have to claim a certain partisanship in seeing Jo Shapcott’s lines from Cartography (a longer poem about Hadrian’s Wall running east-west and Offa’s Dyke running north-south) include a section on my home town of Carlisle.I’ve never seen the Castle keep “gifted with the surface of a peach”, but – hey – that’s poetic licence for you! John McCabe’s music was mindful and respectful of the words, and I wonder why we don’t hear more of his music.

Joe Duddell had the benefit of a partially objective view, in Caribbean poet Grace Nichols’s Ode to English which neatly encapsulated our language’s indecently avaricious acquisition of words (lingual imperialism, perhaps), and he greeted it with music of wit and style. Best of all – perhaps ironically placed first of the modern collection – were the haunting couplets by Kathleen Jamie, The Wishing Tree, matched by Joby Talbot’s gently changing musical landscape, with the opening couplets thrown between the six overlapping voices before smoothing out in the central section.

As an encore, with seven composers and one poet sitting on the stage risers, the King’s Singers gave us a William Byrd motet. As the counter-tenor Robin Tyson explained, by the time of “The Triumphs of Oriana”, William Byrd had retired to Essex and was content in tending his garden; so despite strenuous attempts to get him to contribute, the collection was published without him. It was fitting that this inclusive Prom was able to find room for him.

  • kingssingers for details of The Triumphs of Oriana on CD, which is only available from The King’s Singers website – only 2002 have been pressed!

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