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.

 

Wigmore Mondays – Les Ambassadeurs

les-ambassadeurs

Les Ambassadeurs / Alexis Kossenko (above)

Les Ambassadeurs (Lina Tur Bonet, Stefano Rossi (violins), Tormod Dalen (cello), Allan Rasmussen (harpsichord) / Alexis Kossenko (flute, director)

Wigmore Hall, London, 20 June 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07gnc3g

Available until 20 July

What’s the music?

Blavet Flute Concerto in A minor (1745) (14 minutes)

Pisendel Sonata in D for violin and basso continuo (c1717) (11 minutes)

Leo Flute Concerto in G (unknown) (8 minutes)

Leclair Ouverture No 3 in A major, Op 13 No 5 (1746) (4 minutes)

Vivaldi Recorder Concerto in A minor, RV108 (1724) (7 minutes)

Spotify

Les Ambassadeurs have not recorded this music, but the Spotify playlist below gives a guide to other versions in the event you are unable to get the broadcast link to work:

About the music

It is more than possible that you will only have heard of one of the five composers in this concert, which also presented Les Ambassadeurs in their first visit to the Wigmore Hall. The ensemble is normally around fifteen strong, though to fit the confines of the venue here it was scaled down to five.

Les Ambassadeurs is modelled on the Dresden Hofkapelle, an orchestra in Bach’s time that was regarded as one of the best in Europe. The music they choose comes from the 18th century, naturally, but here presents contemporaries who are not often heard.
Michel Blavet (1700-1768) was a French flautist and composer, and a prominent part of Les Concerts Spirituel in Paris. His Flute Concerto of 1745 was rediscovered in 1954.

Meanwhile the Italian composer Leonardo Leo (1694-1744) was a prolific composer for the stage, but wrote in particular for cello and flute. This concerto appears to be a recent discovery.

Composer-violinist Leclair (1697-1764) appears with an overture intended for his only opera Scylla et Glaucus, while Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755), an employee of the Saxon court in Dresden, wrote his Violin Sonata in an Italian style, bringing to mind the compositions of Vivaldi.

Speaking of which, the concert concludes with one of Vivaldi’s many concerti for flute / recorder and strings. This one was composed at a time when the composer was often away from Venice, but sent scores by post for his pupils to play.

Performance verdict

A series of excellent performances gave a valuable insight into a corner of the eighteenth century not often visited in concert.

Alexis Kossenko led his charges with great enthusiasm, and the planning of the concert was ideal to give a contrast between the works for flute and recorder and those smaller scale pieces for violin – brilliantly played by Lina Tur Bonet.

The works of Blavet, Pisendel and Leo stood up well in comparison to their more illustrious contemporaries, with lively introductions from the strings in the flute concertos, setting the tone for some considerable virtuosity from Kossenko.

What should I listen out for?

Blavet

5:46 – the strings begin with a purposeful tune, the start of a lively Allegro. They are joined by the flute at 6:32. The flute is then the dominant character in proceedings, which includes quite a substantial development of the first tune. At 10:43 we hear the flute alone in a showy cadenza, over a single held note from the other players, before they wrap up the movement.

11:39 – Blavet stays in the key of A minor for his slow movement, a solemn piece of music – but then there is a switch to A major at 13:07, and a lighter outlook. Then at 14:16 the harmonies turn once more to the minor key, though there is now a more positive feel to the music.

15:07 – the strings begin with some brisk music, and you might hear the slap of bow on string as they strive for maximum thrust. The flute joins at 15:49 with a similar sense of purpose. At 16:35 there is a flashy cadenza, but then at 18:12 and 19:02 we hear it in some very difficult music, taking the solo role to extremes.

Pisendel

20:45 – the ‘basso continuo’ (cello and harpsichord) set out a bright opening to which the violin quickly responds, before taking the lead in light hearted dialogue. Then at 22:00 the harmonies open out into more complex areas and the solo violin is given a really testing workout. Eventually Pisendel works his way back to the original key.

24:19 – a slow second movement, still in the original key of D major, but making moves towards the minor key a lot, giving the harmonies more colour in music of greater strife.

27:40 – back to the major key for the third movement, where the violin has a free standing part over the continuo, which anchors the music. From 30:30 Pisendel makes greater demands on his soloist, with rapid string crossing. There is a false end at 31:42, then a proper finish a couple of seconds later.

Leo

33:16 – the strings start off with a perky theme, setting out the main melodies and figures before the flute joins them at 33:57. Before long Leo is asking a lot of the flute, with some breathless phrases before we hear the strings’ theme again at 35:28, now in the key of E minor – the closest ‘relative’ to the work’s home key of G.

37:21 – for the slow movement Leo moves back to the ‘relative’ minor for a slow dance, gracefully introduced by the violins before handing over to the flute at 38:01.

41:23 – after the relative anguish of the slow movement the breezy finale is a nice contrast, the violins flourishing with their tunes, complemented by the flute from 41:58.

Leclair

45:54 – a series of rapidly ascending scales on the cello and violin form the basis of the musical material for this characterful overture. It is a lively, bright piece of music.

Vivaldi

51:16 – Vivaldi gets straight down to business in this piece, with no way of introduction – the strings and recorder are straight in together with some quick exchanges. From 53:30 the recorder has a tricky, virtuosic passage.

54:17 – slow, chugging violins over spread chords from the harpsichord set the scene, after which the recorder comes in with longer phrases.

56:44 – a triple time dance, led by the recorder with enthusiastic support from the strings.

Further listening

As a complement to this concert, here is a link to Les Ambassadeurs in accompaniment to the soprano Sabine Devieilhe, in an enticing album of vocal works by Rameau: