Archives for posts with tag: Wigmore Hall

BennettA recent Wigmore Hall concert (27 June, 2014) featured the four male voices of New York Polyphony, singing unaccompanied. The programme included Richard Rodney Bennett’s, A Colloquy with God, which he composed specifically for the group in 2012, just before his death on Christmas Eve that year. The text, by Thomas Browne, begins “The night is come, like to the day; Depart not thou great God away”. It is a meditation on sleep and death, and it’s been set to music before by composers ranging from Henry Purcell to Vaughan Williams, W H Harris and Gordon Crosse. The 1961 Harris setting, in particular, has a particularly intense and expressive ending:

These are my drowsy days; in vain
I do not wake to sleep again:
O come that hour, when I shall never
Sleep again, but wake forever.

I’ve always been an admirer of Bennett, who effortlessly straddled musical styles from Boulez to popular film music and cabaret, though as he grew older he distanced himself from his early, more radical musical language. All credit to New York Polyphony for championing this piece to the extent of commissioning a video to help promote it, which is freely available. (The recording is also available on their 2013 CD Times go by Turns). Their performance is excellent, but for me the new layer of meaning added by the filmed narrative is entirely irrelevant and superfluous. For Bennett’s musical language in this piece is paired down to the most minimal of materials. It’s largely homophonic (like a partsong rather than a madrigal), and the melodies and sequential passage are almost subliminal, sunken in as they are within the overall textures of four equal voices.

The opening material in F minor is used for the first two verses and the last, though the rhythmic emphasis and harmonies change each time. The range of pitches is kept very tight, but in the first and third verses the music rises towards a very Purcell-like dissonance, reaching a high D flat (on the second syllable of “eclipse” and, at the end, on the middle words of the phrase “never sleep again”). The middle section builds up to its greatest intensity on the words “Sleep is a death, O make me try, by sleeping, what it is to die.” What little polyphony there was is abandoned in this passage for a rising sequence of very close chromatic block harmony. When the opening material returns (marked “tutti poco portamento”) the music slides lazily across the bar lines for the words “these are my drowsy days,” resolving into an F major chord at the very last second, providing perhaps just a glimmer of hope on “wake forever”.


GOldIt seemed particularly appropriate to go to the Wigmore Hall on Friday May 9th for a late night concert starting at 10pm to hear Joanna MacGregor play The Goldberg Variations – given the (probably mythical) back story of Bach composing the variations as an aid to the insomnia of Count Kaiserling, as first related by Forkel. Indeed the couple next to us slept throughout the entire performance, despite our position right at the front of the hall, to the left of the piano. I’d read Tovey’s famous extended essay on the Variations in the days before the concert, and it helped especially to bear in mind some of his arguments – for instance the organization and central importance of the canons, which occur at every third variation and gradually widen out from the first unison canon to the second, third, fourth interval (etc) right up to the octave. Tovey points out how Bach particularly emphasizes the characteristics of each interval in the individual treatment of each of the canons – and says that, despite their strict formality, they form the emotional heart of the work. Following the progress of these canons as the intervals become wider, an entirely audible process, is a great way of keeping your bearings during a performance.

Tovey also discusses the underlying dance forms that are used within the variations, and it’s this aspect that MacGregor is particularly notable for. Many of us grew up listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, which while quirky (to say the least) articulates the counterpoint with crystal clarity. MacGregor is at her strongest when bringing out the dance aspects of movements, with their unpredictable accents and phrases flowing freely across the bar lines. A good example is the brief but lively variation number four, in fast 3/8 time and with an emphasis on clipped quaver rhythms. It’s possibly an example of the baroque passepied dance (a form Bach uses elsewhere, such as in the first orchestral suite). For comparison, Gould’s version sounds plodding, and as it omits all the repeats is only 29 seconds long, too brief to make its impact.

From our position at the front left hand side we also had a good view of the keyboard, and could see MacGregor expertly negotiate the intricate and virtuosic cross-hand passages that result from some of the variations being written for instruments with two separate keyboard manuals. I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, and recommend the rest of the series of late concerts, including particularly interesting programmes from  New York Polyphony (June 27th) and Anne Sofie von Otter with Steven Isserlis and Bengt Forsberg (July 4th). 


Musical Authors: Edmund Crispin/Bruce Montgomery (2)
Although his film work got his music out to a huge audience, the numerous comedy scores in particular stand in stark contrast to Bruce Montgomery’s church music and concert works, with which he started out. These began to appear in the mid-1940s, at the same time his detective novels were appearing under the name Edward Crispin. Church music predominates, the culmination being the Oxford Requiem, commissioned by the Oxford Bach Choir and first performed at the Sheldonian Theatre in July 1951 (also the scene of a crime in his novel The Moving Toyshop – and more personally for me, where the Oxford Bach Choir still holds its concerts today). He may have been motivated to compose the piece following the death of his close friend and teacher, the organist and composer Godfrey Sampson (1902-1949) – thought also to have been the inspiration behind the character Geoffrey Vintner, the organist and friend of Gervase Fen in The Case the Guilded Fly

An Oxford Requiem “is Montgomery’s most considerable achievement to date,” wrote one critic, “and confirms the suspicion that he is a real composer with something of real significance to say.” Malcolm Arnold called the secular choral work Venus’ Praise of the following year “one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard”, and that work, a setting of seven sixteenth and seventeenth century English poems, may well have been the peak of his musical achievement. It was first performed in April 1951 at London’s Wigmore Hall. Montgomery and his friend the composer Geoffrey Bush had hired the hall jointly, and Bush’s Summer Serenade was also performed. (The two also collaborated on a short detective story, “Who Killed Baker”, published in the Evening Standard in 1950).

Even less known are the operas, which include a children’s ballad opera, John Barleycorn, and two intriguing collaborations with his friend Kingsley Amis providing the texts. The first, Amberley Hall, was described by Montgomery as “a mildly scandalous burlesque set in England in the 18th century.” The second, To Move the Passions, was a ballad opera commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Both remained unfinished, and Amis complained that Montgomery was too busy “writing filthy film scores and stinking stories for the popular press.” Unfortunately, only the Concertino for String Orchestra, a substantial three movement piece despite the modest title, and the only purely instrumental work Montgomery ever had published, is generally available as a recording.

Montgomery returned to literature at the end of his life, with the final Crispin novel, Glimpses of the Moon. By now, the composer character, Broderick Thouless, is writing “difficult” film music and light concert works, rather than the other way round (as it was with Napier in Frequent Hearses). Such comic perversity is characteristic of Crispin. But even in the midst of the comedy, it’s possible to read between the lines of, in the words of Philip Lane, “a composer of talent who was perhaps sidetracked, and, not helped by increasing alcoholism, was unable to fulfill his full potential.”