Thursday 5 July 2012

Ancient and Modern - Judith Bingham and OAE

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Daniel Cook
To celebrate Judith Bingham's 60th birthday the John Armitage Memorial Trust (JAM) came up with the idea of teaming Bingham (a previous JAM commissionee and now on their panel) with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The concert, on Wednesday 4 July at the City of London Festival, took place in the church of St. Bride's Fleet street and will be repeated in Hythe on Friday 6th. The programme teamed up two baroque masterpieces, Handel's Organ Concerto in D minor and Pergolesi's Stabat Mater with two of Bingham's works, Jacob's Ladder and The Hythe.

The concert opened with Jacob's Ladder, originally commissioned by the American Guild of Organists for Stephen Cleobury (organ) and Philip Brunelle (conductor). The work was written and conceived for organ and modern strings, so the performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was a first, but Bingham confessed that she was delighted with the effect of the vibrato-less gut strings. 11 players from the orchestra performed with Daniel Cook playing the St. Bride's Church organ. The work is written like a baroque piece so that the organ is part of the texture rather than a showy display instrument. The work is in three movements and an entracte, which depict the story from Jacob's leaving home through to his falling asleep and having the dream. The effect of the period strings was to give the string lines a clean sound, with an emphasis on the textures. There was a notable contrast between the smoothness of the organ and the edgier lines of the strings.

The opening movement was clearly Judith Bingham's voice, but you also heard echoes of other 20th century English string works and perhaps Stravinsky as well in the mix. The second movement, Jacob's anxiety dream, was edgy and rather haunting. As Jacob fell asleep, I started to think of Bartok's Music for Strings, percussion and celeste and wondered what that would sound like, played like this. Finally, Jacob's dream was a truly magical experience, Bingham's lovely textures rendered rather radiant and perhaps pure by the vibrato-less strings, dissonances showed up more and were rendered more pungent but also more poignant.

Next Daniel Cook moved to a chamber organ on which he played the solo part in Handel's Organ Concerto in D Minor, HWV 304. The work is unusual in that it is scored for organ and strings alone, without woodwind. Dating from the period of the Occasional Oratorio, the concerto may not have been heard during Handel's lifetime. The opening movement, a sort of dialogue between the organ and strings, but I couldn't help feeling that the instrument that Cook was playing on (a fine continuo instrument) was a little too small scale and discreet. This is an eternal problem with the Handel concerti, getting the right size of instrument. Cook's finger-work was neat and expressive but without the sort of dazzle which Handel seems to have brought to it, and in the concerted passages the organ was just not prominent enough. Only when he re-worked some of his concertos for publication did Handel fully work out the scorings, so that in the autograph of this one the slow movement is mainly ad libitum for the organ, Cook played a nicely contrasting prelude and fugue. This was followed by a finale in which we did get a bit of brilliance from the organ, or at least as much as the instrument would allow Cook to give.

Bingham, in her pre-concert talk, explained that when informed by JAM that the commission would be played in London and Hythe she decided to visit Hythe to see St. Leonard's Church where the performance would took place. There she unusually decided on the title of the piece first, The Hythe, before writing a note. She also discovered that the word hythe is Old English for haven or harbour. Returning home she started reading Anglo Saxon poems and came up with The Seafarer, which gave the work its structure. So that the work, for 11 strings, is in three movements. The first, the poet comments ships are homes of sadness and it evokes the struggles with stormy seas in icy weather. Bingham took full advantage of the transparency brought by the string playing, with darkly shimmering chords played with fine accuracy by the players, combined with some lovely swooping textures. The music was full of keening and throbbing, again Bingham taking advantage of the textures of the instruments, with clear high lines brilliantly evoking the icy wastes. The second movement was a dance, with a distinctly Scottish snap to it; the poet is being spurred on to make another journey and the dance is restless, with an uneasy edge developing into something subtly threatening. The poem talks of the sailor being addicted to the sea, with God as the only harbour, and the final movement has the ship heading for home. A high solo violin providing a haunted  theme which builds up to climax over a rocking motion.

The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 so should be available on their web-site. Whilst the piece will undoubtedly have currency on modern strings, do try this opportunity to hear the work in its original.

The concert finished with a nicely balanced performance of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater with soprano Claire Seaton (on crutches) and counter-tenor Andrew Radley. The two formed a well-balanced pair in the duet movements. Seaton's beautiful clear soprano, with its high floated tones, contrasted and blended nicely with Radley's rich warm voice with its nicely free and easy top. Both singers combine operatic experience with period performance, so this was an account of the work which paid due to Pergolesi's operatic manner. Radley's performance in O quam tristis did not try to disguise the operatic origins of the music, and both singers clearly relished the opportunities for display. Radley's performance of Fac, ut portem was very expressive, using the chromaticism to nicely dramatic effect. Both Seaton and Radley were suitably joyous in the Inflammatus. Nicholas Cleobury's speeds kept things moving without being overly brisk, there was time to enjoy Pergolesi's delicious chromaticism without over indulging.

Conductor Nicholas Cleobury proved adept in the varied repertoire, showing himself able to bringing out the best in Judith Bingham's pieces and give us some stylish performances of the baroque ones. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played with a will and were equally adept and enthusiastic in the modern as in the period pieces. One of the players came to see Judith Bingham just before the concert, to check something in the part, commenting that it was a great novelty to be able to consult a living composer.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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