Friday 6 July 2012

Judith Bingham's Jacob's Ladder - Ancient and Modern revisited

Whilst the memories were still fresh in my mind, I was luckily able to listen to the Naxos recording of Judith Bingham's Jacob's Ladder, played by the modern instruments of  the Dmitri Ensemble, with Tom Winpenny. It was interesting comparing this with memories of the performance on Wednesday, given by the strings of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with Daniel Cook organ. Thanks to BBC IPlayer, I was able to refresh my memories of this performance. Now one inevitable difference, apart from the strings, is in the organs; this is inevitable as no two are alike.

Listening to the Naxos recording (and looking at the score, courtesy of the composer), it was noticeable how much less textural contrast I felt. The modern strings and the organ blended nicely with the strings often forming something of a backdrop to the organ, whereas the gut strings (with no vibrato) gave a striking contrast to the smooth textures of the St. Brides organ. (But, by contrast, I felt that Tom Winpenny played using slightly distinctive stops, where as Daniel Cook seemed to choose softer edged stops). The modern strings gave the whole piece rather greater surface beauty, with the playing technique causing the textures of the music to coalesce into a lovely whole; after all, that is why modern string playing developed. By contrast, the period performance emphasised transparency and edge. There was a greater sense of individual line, with each being more strongly characterised. In the modern version, I felt some of the textures came to be rather denser.

Dissonances in the period performance were very striking, very edgy and insistent (with, of course, little scope for error), whereas the modern performance was fuller in tone, less taut, less spine-tingly (Some of the passages in Bingham's piece made me wonder whether the OAE could make some extra cash by moonlighting playing horror film scores) In the last movement, the textures of the modern strings were lovelier, but less otherworldly. In the period performance, the gut strings gave this movement that little bit of extra magic.

Re-visiting Wednesday's performance on IPlayer, some of my memories had their corners rubbed off, the performance seemed a little mellower than I remember. At which point you start to wonder what was and what was not!

Listening to both recordings, side by side, I find that I have to agree with the composer, that the period performance made a striking and seductive change to the piece, emphasising the darker edge and the mystery. It wouldn't work everywhere, but here it was brilliant.

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

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