Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Katie Bray sings Freya Waley-Cohen’s Spell Book @ Wigmore Hall

Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano), Britten Sinfonia Soloists [Jacqueline Shave, Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Joy Farrall (clarinet), John Lenehan (piano)]

Leclair Trio Sonata in D major Op.2/8 (1728)
Mahler arr. Waley-Cohen Rückert-Lieder (1901-2, arr. 2019)
Lutosławski Bukoliki (1952 arr. 1962)
Waley-Cohen Spell Book (2019)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 22 January 2020

Photo credits Patrick Allen (Freya Waley-Cohen); Tim Dunk (Katie Bray)

Review by Ben Hogwood

The previews for this concert were intriguing. As well as a performance of a new arrangement of Mahler’s Ruckert-Lieder, we were to be treated to Spell Book, the world premiere tour of a new dramatic work by Freya Waley-Cohen.

Inspired by the composer’s encounter with Rebecca Tamás’ collection of poems WITCH, the song cycle was written for and performed by mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, singing with an ensemble of string quartet, clarinet and piano. In terms of forces used this gave the work a similar profile to Schoenberg’s famous melodrama Pierrot Lunaire. The music fulfilled Waley-Cohen’s wish that it would place us under a spell, as the book had clearly done for the composer. She brought it to life with music of luminosity and captivating drama.

She was helped considerably by Bray (above), who held the attention effortlessly with a commanding performance. The first and most substantial song, spell for Lilith, found her word emphasis in the observation that Lilith is ‘such a bad girl’ setting the expressive tone. The music swept up to impressive heights, Bray’s voice stopping the listener in their tracks while simultaneously nailing the acoustic of the hall.

Waley-Cohen’s response to the text was often vivid, the instruments either offering weighty support to the words or dropping away under their feet. The observation that ‘Lilith, you have a great body’ received appropriately slinky contours, while the contrast of suspension and movement towards the end led to a delirious postlude from John Lenehan’s piano.

The following two songs were more compact but retained Lilith’s intensity. spell for sex had a soft, alluring vocalise that was also remote, while the spell for logic was much more active, pockets of instrumental music bumping into the vocal line but never overwhelming it. The open-ended challenge to the audience was effective, as was the relatively sudden finish, concluding a mysterious and strangely euphoric piece. The spell had indeed been cast.

Spell Book was complemented by Waley-Cohen’s arrangement of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. In this regard she was bravely nailing her colours to the mast alongside the intimidating figure of Schoenberg, whose arrangement of the composer’s Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) for chamber ensemble around 100 years ago is still occasionally performed. The ensemble here, replicating that for Spell Book, was cut from similar cloth.

This performance was a qualified success, part of the fault for that lying with the listener and a long-held familiarity with the piano and orchestral versions of Rückert-Lieder. There were however some imaginative qualities here, particularly the technique of doubling instruments at a distance of two octaves. John Lenehan‘s high piano right hand therefore acquired a ghostly shadow in the form of Caroline Dearnley‘s low cello, and this technique was used to create an enchanting, wispy half-light.

It also suited Bray’s range and performance, and while her interpretation felt like it may still be in progress – again the problem of over-familiarity rearing its head – she grew into the songs as they unfolded. The famous Um mitternacht was an inevitable highlight, while the clarinet lines in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (Do not look into my songs!) were beautifully rendered by Joy Farrall. The final song, the rapt Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) was beautifully controlled if not quite reaching peak intensity.

Prior to the song cycles we heard the Trio Sonata in D major from Jean-Marie Leclair. It made a nice change to hear this music on modern instruments, the program illustrating how the Trio Sonata was in fact a predecessor of the Piano Trio. Jackie Shave, Caroline Dearnley and John Lenehan clearly enjoyed their time with this piece, and Leclair’s elevation of the cello to much more than mere accompaniment found the two string players engaged in rewarding dialogue.

In between the song collections Dearnley teamed up with viola player Clare Finnimore for Lutoslawski’s six Bukoliki, delectable folk-inspired miniatures originally conceived for piano but subsequently arranged by the composer. Lasting little more than a minute, each one was beautifully formed and strongly expressive, the string players enjoying the melodic ornaments and the rustic sweeps of the bow. The addition of subtle discords created a haunting quality to some of this music, pointing the way to Lutoslawski’s sonic innovations to come.

The Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series continues to impress with its imaginative programming and opportunities for contemporary composers. Both aims were realised here in a richly rewarding concert.

Further reading and listening

To discover more about Freya Waley-Cohen, you can visit her website here or listen to her music on Soundcloud here. Meanwhile the Spotify link below offers a chance to hear her Permutations, as played by her sister, violinist Tamsin.

 

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