Monteverdi arr. Wick Toccata from ‘L’Orfeo’ (1607)
Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Tabakova Frozen River Flows (2005)
Finnis The Centre is Everywhere (2019)
Vasks Music for the fleeting birds (1977)
Tabakova Origin (2022) (world premiere)
Carter A Fantasy about Purcell’s ‘Fantasia on one note’ (1975)
Tavener The Hidden Face (1996)
Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Dan Bates (oboe), City of London Sinfonia / Alexandra Wood (violin)
Southwark Cathedral, London
Thursday 3 March 2022
Written by Ben Hogwood
When the young Richard Hickox assembled a performing group in 1971, his vision was an extended family of talented musicians coming together to project the enjoyment of their art onto their audience.
Just over 50 years on, Hickox may sadly no longer be with us but his vision, realised by the City of London Sinfonia, burns with an ever brighter flame. This celebration in Southwark Cathedral may have been a year late, due to the consequences of the pandemic, but it brought everything together in a programme blending the old with the new.
Great credit should go to the orchestra’s creative director and leader, Alexandra Wood, for choosing music that looked simultaneously forwards and backwards, while utilising the vast spaces offered by the cathedral in inspiring and imaginative ways.
The audience were free to roam around during the concert, which was a considerable plus, for acoustic hotspots could be found and exploited, while it was also possible to stand to one side in contemplation. The mood was relaxed but focused, with audience members chosing a mixture of both options. The only danger of this was unexpectedly finding yourself in front of a group of instrumentalists when they were about to play, meaning the focus would suddenly shift in your direction! This was a risk well worth taking, for the rewards were many.
Before the concert, the Dean of Southwark Cathedral, Andrew Nunn, spoke warmly of the power of music to soothe the fevered mind, giving the pertinent Biblical example of David’s harp curing Saul’s war-torn temper, illustrated vividly by a stained-glass window depiction at the back of the church. The parallels with Russia and Ukraine were unmistakeable, and before the programme started everyone stood for the Ukraine national anthem.
The programme itself began under that very window, with Stephen Wick’s excellent arrangement of the Toccata from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the brass filling the cathedral from back to front with sonorous colours.
The baton then passed to the strings for an unforgettable account of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. This work was written for performance in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, utilising the space in imaginative ways – and the City of London Sinfonia responded in kind, with the work’s solo group in the round in the nave, and the main body of the strings in the centre of the church. This was a deeply emotive performance, finding the intersection between the old of Tallis and Vaughan Williams’ own sweeping melodies and added-note harmonies. In doing so a composition that is often overplayed gained fresh insight, and, for your reviewer standing at the back of the church, a magical experience.
British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova has a close association with the Sinfonia. Frozen River Flows, an earlier work from 2005, appeared here in an arrangement for clarinet and percussion which was played in the south transept. This brightly coloured piece found Katherine Spencer’s clarinet evoking graceful lines not dissimilar to Poulenc, complemented by the richness of the vibraphone and crotales (antique cymbals), expertly managed by Chris Blundell.
We also heard Tabakova’s music in the world premiere of Origin, written for this concert. It was a brief but meaningful celebration placing violin soloist Alexandra Wood in the nave, with the accompanying musicians under the tower. Wood’s role was that of virtuoso, but she managed it carefully so that slower contributions from the strings and vibraphone were ideally balanced. Tabakova has a talent for the immediate creation of an atmosphere, and this may have been a relatively minimal piece but it left a lasting impression.
Complementing this was another work in the round of the nave, as 12 string players assembled for Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everywhere. This was a wholly appropriate choice, the soloists creating unusual and original sounds. On occasion the music swelled like the bellows of an accordion, then subsided to a barely audible whisper, then appeared to be reaching beyond the cathedral for the skies above. Finnis has an unusual and remarkable habit of writing music that becomes an out of body experience, and The Centre is Everywhere shows there is still so much more to achieve when writing for stringed instruments.
The programme turned to wind instruments for a timely reference to the troubles in Ukraine. Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks wrote Fleeting Birds in 1977 as an expression of his need for freedom. Restricted from travelling by the Soviet authorities, he made his feelings known through music. The City of London Sinfonia winds walked the length of the cathedral as they played, turning from joyous expressions of freedom and release to statements soured by compression, reflecting the composer’s earthbound plight.
Freedom lay in Elliott Carter’s Purcell Fantasy, richly expressed by the brass around a persistent middle C, before cutting without a break to John Tavener’s Hidden Face for a final contemplation. The stillness of this work is deceptive, achieved through great virtuosity from solo oboe and a countertenor, singing text written by Mother Maria. Oboist Dan Bates and singer Hugh Cutting were superb throughout, the latter floating his words effortlessly above the prayerful strings, whose sonorous tones were the ideal match for Bates’s keening oboe, which also scaled unfathomable heights with impressive ease.
It was a fitting way to finish a deeply felt concert and celebration, that of a performing group who continue to do their founder proud. Like their musical choices, the City of London Sinfonia look to the future, embracing new advances as well as nurturing past achievements while they do so. They deserve to continue as a treasured feature of the capital’s music making.