Sunday 15 September 2013

Kings Place Festival: a second helping

The Songmen
The Songmen
I dipped into the Kings Place Festival on Saturday 14 September, taking in concerts by the Dante Quartet and the Songmen as well as eavesdropping on a variety of the free music taking place in the foyers. The festival utilises the whole space, so that there are concerts in both halls, plus stages set up in the main atrium and in the foyer by the two concert halls, as well as activities elsewhere; I spotted children busily painting just outside the Kings Place gallery. When I arrived at 11.30am, the whole place was buzzing. The Songmen, a 6-man a cappella group, performed a selection of numbers from their disc, Midnight. In complete contrast, the Dante Quartet performed string quartets by Schubert and Kodaly.

On the free stages I caught great jazz from the Maciek Pysz Trio, some amazing beat-box from Lyrix Organix: Remixed and heard both the Borealis Saxophone Quartet and Akademi Indian Dance setting up.

The Songmen are Guy Lewis, Ben Sawyer, Rob Waters, Chris Monk, Nick Ashby and John Beasley, two counter-tenors, a tenor, two baritones and a bass. Their repertoire covers a wide range, in 2011 they won awards in both the sacred and profane categories of the Tolosa International Choral Contest. Their programme at Kings Place concentrated on jazz tinged arrangements of standards, but with a few excursions on the way. They opened with Be your husband if you'll be my wife, an Andy Stroud song originally sung by Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley. Starting with just a high counter-tenor solo plus rhythmic accompaniment, the result was very striking. They followed this with two of John Rutter's Birthday Madrigals, Come live with me an be my love and It was a lover and his lass. Written for George Shearing's 75th birthday, they were both full of infectious jazzy melodies over a moving bass.

Next came a five-part close harmony arrangement of  Irving Berlin's Cheek to Cheek from the 1935 film Top Hat. Wearing suits and ties, the group had a slightly buttoned up appearance which belied the relaxed way they sang.  Their arrangement of the spiritual Were you there was beautifully realised, but ran the danger of rather sentimentalising the piece and I felt that the performance was too beautiful and should have been a bit more rugged and angry.

A complete change of style came next. First a brilliant account of Pierre Passereau's chanson Il est bel et bon, sung in aquite a light high manner, with some actions to accompany the animal noises. This was followed by Clement Janequin's La Guerre a description of a 16th century battle between the French and the Swiss. This latter was a complete tour de force, with a brilliantly involving combination of words and music. The group's polished sound in this early music was rather different that of some specialist early music groups who give the music a rougher, more earthy feel. But they performed the Jannequin with immense flair and technical skill.

Another change of mood, with a group of folk-songs. The Scots song, Ye Banks and Braes was sung quite straight, in a nice close harmony arrangement though it was odd hearing Robert Burns' words sung with English accents. Then a rather nice jazzy arrangement of the Skye Boat Song and finally a Newfoundland song, She's like a swallow which took the group into more familiar a cappella territory, though the arrangement's tricky modulations between verses seemed take some time to settle.

Heartbeat (recorded by the Knife and by Jose Gonzales) was not a song that I was familiar with. They performed it with a nice relaxed feeling to the rhythm and with subtle close harmonies. Then came Mr Bojangles in a highly imaginative and arrangement which was also rather moving. They finished with Alexander Hill and Fats Waller's 1931 hit Crazy about my baby but of course that wasn't the end as we were treated to an encore which melded Billy Strayhorn's The A-Train with Chatanooga Choocho and a lot of brilliant scat.

After a pause for rest, recuperation and relaxation, I then heard the Dante Quartet's concert. The quartet (Krysia Osostowicz, Giles Francis, Yuko Inoue and Richard Jenkinson) has recently recorded all of Kodaly's quartets for Hyperion. For this concert they surrounded Kodaly's Second string quartet with Schubert's Quartet in A minor, Rosamunde, D804 and Quartetsatz in C minor D703.

The Quartetsatz opening the concert, playing with nicely sweet tone and a fine sense of line. The group brought light textures and febrile intensity to the piece, throwing into sharp relief the more dramatic highlights. This had the effect of bringing out the drama in Schubert's lyricism.

Zoltan Kodaly's String quartet no. 2 Op. 10 was written in 1916-18. The opening movement was dark an intense, with a feeling of Janacek in hits combination of lyricism and intense darkness. A very restless work, the interplay between the four players was superb in the way they passed Kodaly's fragments of melody around.  The second movement started with a series of lyrical cantilenas on violin and then cello, before introducing a rather folk-like melody, with the return of the opening material the music became increasingly rhapsodic and the structure very free. For the final movement Kodaly incorporate  six different folk-dances, . The result was lively and infectious, with a series of episodes bringing out the folk music's more melancholic aspects. The textures were complex and this was certainly no romp, Kodaly seemed to be interested in the way the melodies would fit into a complex polyphonic texture.

The quartet opened Schubert's Rosamunde Quartet in a quiet intense way, with the music just a narrow thread of sound. Again, the a strong edge to the more dramatic moments rather threw them into relieve, and the group's performance minded the interesting undercurrents in the music. In the second movement, the variations on the Rosamunde theme, the players brought out the simple beauty of the music with extremely fine grained playing. The drama, when it came, was high-powered and intense.

The group brought out the rather folk-like influence of the melody of the third movement, performing with light, slim tones. Though I have to admit that the way the group tended to veer towards performing Schubert's music with quiet intensity did rather make the music feel somewhat studied and stylised. The final Allegro Moderato, with its light, folk-y tune, was played very affectionately in a controlled, refined way which highlighted the moments of real drama.

It was the Kodaly in this concert which intrigued me. Whilst the Dante Quartet's Schubert performances, with their febrile intensity, lacked an element of full-blooded passion, their performance of Kodaly's Second String Quartet made me want to explore the work further.

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