… a musical offering (J. S. B. 1985) …, Op.46
Ophelia Dances, Op.13
Ophelia’s Last Dance, Op.32
The Garden of Earthly Delights [BBC commission: world premiere]
Huw Watkins (piano)
Lucy Schaufer (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Watts (countertenor) & Sam West (narrator)
London Sinfonietta Voices
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 August, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
The last of this season’s Proms Saturday Matinees brought a further concert of British music, on this occasion by three composers who are celebrating major birthdays over the course of this year, performed by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this autumn).
Alexander Goehr (80 earlier this month) was duly represented by … a musical offering (J. S. B. 1985) … – written to mark the tercentenary of Bach’s birth 27 years ago and an inventive homage right from the ‘Prelude’ – its astringent textures gradually coalesce into a chorale – through a sequence of pithy and characterful dance sections, to an imposing ‘Ricercare’ where the three-part ensemble of woodwind and string sextet, brass trio and a ‘continuo’ of piano, double-bass and percussion engage in an intricate dialogue whose finely sustained momentum may be more akin to Schoenberg than to Webern, but which caps the 16 minutes with a display of contrapuntal fluency firmly in the tradition of the dedicatee.
Oliver Knussen (60 this June) then featured in two pieces which maybe are more relaxed in expression but are no less rigorous in conception. A ‘spin-off’ from his Third Symphony (to be heard in Prom 56), Ophelia Dances (1975) evokes the tragic heroine in a sequence of four dances of increasing abandon, before a celesta cadenza leads into the reflective postlude. Various melodies, by others as well as Knussen himself, are alluded to – though one of the latter was held back and not used until Ophelia’s Last Dance (2010), a nine-minute piano piece, eloquently played by Huw Watkins, where it acts as a refrain between episodes that barely disturb the mood of wistful recollection into which the music finally evanesces.
Simon Bainbridge (60 later this month) closed proceedings with the first performance of The Garden of Earthly Delights (2012), a sizable cantata to a text by John Ross which offers a highly arresting commentary on Bosch’s fabled alter-piece. A spoken ‘Prologue: Hieronymus Bosch, the Gardener’, its recollection of time and place vividly rendered by Sam West (though the absence of music rather left it adrift), leads into ‘Panel One: The Creation of the World’, in which mezzo and countertenor anticipate the opening-out of the design to reveal ‘Panel Two: The Garden of Eden’, with the solo singers combining in an eerie evocation of the artist’s voice that is intensified in ‘Panel Three: The Garden of Earthly Delights’, featuring an array of imaginative instrumental and choral textures in the depiction of enveloping decadence and decay; leading inevitably to ‘Panel Four: The Music of Hell’, with an anguished response from countertenor only partly offset by the mezzo’s dark-hued fatalism as a future where “the garden gate shuts, on the road ahead” is stoically contemplated.
Whatever its quirks, this is an eventful (if indubitably English) response to one of the wonders of European art – with a dedicated response from Lucy Schaufer and Andrew Watts, committed singing by London Sinfonietta Voices and playing from BCMG such as benefitted from Nicholas Collon’s attentive authority.