Tippett, Horne & Carter

Dance, Clarion Air
Splintered Instruments
Four Songs from the British Isles
Over the Sea to Skye [London premiere]
The Tempest – Suite (arr. Meirion Bowen)

Mark Padmore (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)

BBC Singers
Stephen Cleobury

Nash Ensemble
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Late-night Proms can vary as much in content as they do in attendance – the present occasion as musically diverse as it was sparsely peopled. Yet the alternation, then combination of unaccompanied chorus and chamber ensemble worked well in what proved to be a thoughtfully assembled programme.

Two recent commissions from the Nash Ensemble were included. Splintered Instruments (2004) is the latest in a sequence of more-or-less ‘fractured’ instrumental pieces from Scottish composer David Horne. Centered on the timbral properties of the harp, which acts as an expressive as well as formal conduit for the often-waspish interplay that emerges, this is music subtle and characterful by turns – an attractive addition to a notable instrumental series (and of which a recording would be welcome).

The concert also provided a further London outing for one of Elliott Carter’s most recent chamber pieces. Once again, the harp is very much ‘first among equals’ among the eight instruments of Mosaic (2004) – Carter having spoken of his desire to explore techniques developed by inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo, who had a significant presence on the New York music-scene of the period. Not that these techniques are deployed merely for effect; indeed, the piece reveals an almost continuous ‘through line’, around which evolves a discourse both inventive and diverting. Robust initial exchanges coalesce into a scurrying section, its energy spills over into a passage of hushed inner intensity, tension being released in an explosive toccata-like episode and capped by brusque gestures across the ensemble. All deftly achieved over its ten-minute span and with a disciplined virtuosity such as the Nash musicians, harpist Lucy Wakeford in particular, seized upon with commendable assurance.

Otherwise, the evening provided a final Proms tribute to Michael Tippett in his centenary year. Long regarded as the highlight of the coronation anthology “A Garland for the Queen”, the part-song “Dance, Clarion Air” (1952) encapsulates the rhythmic élan and harmonic translucency of the composer’s music from thisperiod, its antiphonal exchanges tailor-made for the RAH acoustic. Nor should one be deceived by the title “Four Songs from the British Isles” (1956) into expecting routine folk-song transcriptions. The intricate counterpoint of “Early One Morning” and harmonic agility of “Lilliburlero”, and the melodic plangency of “Poortith cauld” and the fluid rhythmic lilt of “Gwenllian”: all are beautifully if demandingly re-imagined for the medium. This was also the occasion for the London premiere of “Over the Sea to Skye” – soon replaced as the Scottish component of the set, which proved an atmospheric number in its own right.

Tippett’s music for an Old Vic production of “The Tempest” has undergone much revamping since its unveiling in 1961. That by the composer’s partner and amanuensis Meirion Bowen seems to have become the preferred option – and rightly so, as it places the most significant elements of the score in a lively, coherent context. Chief among these are the three songs for Ariel – above all, the haunting simplicity of “Full fathom five” – that remain unsurpassed among modern settings of Shakespeare for their insight, and were enticingly sung by Mark Padmore. He was joined by David Wilson-Johnson in the dryly humorous “Masque” that is the score’s longest continuous number, with the latter doing justice to the setting of Caliban’s “Be not afeard” that, with refracted allusions to other of its composer’s late works, proved to be Tippett’s very last piece. The instrumental items, some ingeniously adapted from earlier pieces (notably the uproarious ‘Trumpet Tune with Boogie’, from “The Knot Garden”), were full of incident and responded well to such incisive treatment from the Nash players and Martyn Brabbins.

So, an intelligently planned and finely executed concert – enjoyed by an audience which, though few in number, responded with suitably rapt attention. Ample proof that silence can indeed be golden.

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