Monday 1 October 2012

Music@Malling - Bingham and Watkins

St Leonard's Tower, West Malling. Photo Credit Thomas Belby
St Leonard's Tower
Music@Malling takes place in and around the Kent town of West Malling, and this year’s festival is the second. Under the artistic directorship of the young conductor Thomas Kemp, the festival took as its theme Charles Dickens and featured music by composers whom Dickens liked and met. But a second strand was the concentration on the music of a pair of contemporary composers, Judith Bingham and Huw Watkins. For the festival’s final concert on Sunday 30 September, Kemp’s own ensemble Chamber Domaine performed in St Mary’s Church, West Malling, in a programme of Mozart, Bingham and Watkins, which included a performance of Bingham’s The Hythe which was premiered by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment earlier this year.

I have to confess that I had not been aware of West Malling until we visited it on Sunday. It is an historic place, with St Leonard’s Tower built in 1080, and St. Mary’s Abbey the ruins of which date from 1090. (The 18th century buildings on the site now house a community of Benedictine Nuns.). The attractive high street area still invites a stroll and we had an excellent late lunch at The Lobster Pot, pub.

The festival ran from 27 to 30 September with lunchtime and evening recitals, based on two resident ensembles Chamber Domaine and the Sacconi Quartet, and locations included West Malling Church, Bradbourne House (a fine Queen Anne house and Pilsdon Barn (the abbey’s medieval barn now converted into a chapel). The final concert was very well supported by mainly local people, but the programme was attractive and well thought out so that you could imagine spending the weekend in the town. Not only was there a chance to hear a lot of music by Judith Bingham and Huw Watkins, but there was also a Meet the Composers event on Saturday afternoon.

The location for Sunday evening's concert, St Mary’s Church, West Malling, still preserves its Norman tower and chancel, but its other treasure is a superb coat of arms of James II, lavishly carved. The main body of the church is 20th century, replacing an early Georgian one (which itself replaced the decayed medieval structure).

Chamber Domaine is a young ensemble of around two dozen players based on a small string ensemble (eight violins, three violas, three cellos and a double bass). They perform standing up, which can look a trifle pretentious, but in a concert which called for a variety of different line ups, made for a flexible and easy way of changing placement of players.

Huw Watkins wrote Nocturne in 2002 as a companion piece to Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings,  he revised the work in 2009. Watkins’ piece is scored for horn, strings and two clarinets. The solo horn part was played by Stephen Stirling. It was a very atmospheric piece, beautifully scored with a lot of interesting dialogue between the horn and the ensemble, exploiting the horn’s natural ability to produce long rhapsodic lines which float over the top of the orchestra. The string writing had a very English feel to it and there were inevitable hints of Britten. It very much felt like the prelude to something, the harbinger of dramatic events. The dialogue between horn and ensemble got harder and edgier as the piece progressed, but then evaporated at the end. This was a very atmospheric mood picture, rather than drama.

The premiere of Judith Bingham’s The Hythe took place at JAM (John Armitage Memorial) concert that was part of the City of London Festival. (see my review) The work was written for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with Bingham deliberately taking advantage of the sound quality of the strings produced with gut strings and no vibrato. Chamber Domaine played the work with 11 players on modern string instruments, with metal strings and vibrato. The result was that the chords in the first movement lost their veiled quality, taking on a darker, more edgier feel. Inevitably the bigger moments were louder, more powerful. In the second movement the dance was deeply intense and over wrought. The final movement was atmospheric, but I’m not sure that Kemp and Chamber Domaine took us on a journey the way Nicholas Cleobury and OAE had. But Chamber Domaine brought off the piece brilliantly and showed that the work has a vital life whether played by old or new instruments.

The rest of the concert was taken up with music by Mozart. They had opened with his Exultate Jubilate with soprano Yeree Suh, and also played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Symphony no. 40. This well filled programme rather indicated the difficulties of programme such an intense event as this with players from Chamber Domaine involved in five concerts over four days. Mozart is an unforgiving composer, his music must be played well, with poise and, preferably, charm. Unfortunately there were indications in all three works that the group had been working to tight deadlines.

Suh has a lovely lyric soprano voice, nicely warm with a good free top which included the top C at the end of Exultate Jubilate. Her way with the complex passage-work of the piece was neat, rather than bravura, but all wonderfully accurate. The accompanying ensemble produced some lovely solo moments and there was some crisp incisive playing, but balance was not quite ideal. Sitting where I was in the third row, Suh was clearly audible but with the orchestra slightly too loud, but I understand that further back in the church, the balance was even less in her favour.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is a work which everyone knows, but you can’t take that for granted with performers. Kemp’s performance with Chamber Domaine seemed to be intent on the sort of brisk, incisive type performance beloved of some period ensembles. The result rather over-did the attack and simply showed up the uncertainties of ensemble that indicated a longer rehearsal period would have helped. This was a shame as the group is full of talented players. Similarly in the symphony, there were some lovely solo moments, particularly in the wind, but Kemp seemed to want to emphasise attack and speed. The result was to make the symphony rather more sturm und drang than Mozart probably intended with strong highly coloured contrasts between the sections. I kept wanting the players to relax a little more and to enjoy it, to charm us and delight us.

This was an imaginative concert in a highly attractive concert series. Perhaps the feeling that the concert was slightly over-filled indicated ambitions not quite achieved, but the performances of the contemporary works were superb. They showed what this group can achieve. They are performing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings at West Malling on December 15, and will be back with another Music@Malling at the same time next year, with another theme and another resident contemporary composer. I can’t wait!

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