Tuesday 4 November 2014

Courtly night: Master of the Queen’s Musick

Judith Weir - Photo © Chris Christodoulou
Judith Weir
Photo © Chris Christodoulou
Weir, Maxwell Davies, Elgar, Bliss, Walford Davies; Park Lane Group; Sam Wanamaker Playous
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Oct 27 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Celebrating Judith Weir's appointment as Master of the Queen's Music

In celebration of Judith Weir becoming the first female court composer the Park Lane Group, in association with the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe, put on a concert (Monday 27 October) with music from Weir and six other 'Master of the Queen's Music' (and King's) from 1924 with Sir Edward Elgar, to Weir's predecessor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who was 'Master of the Queen's Music' from 2004.

The concert was put on by the Park Lane Group which, since 1956, has been supporting young musicians by organising concerts at venues like the Southbank and Wigmore Hall to showcase their talents. Tonight's star-studded concert included performances by people who, in the early stages of their career, had been one of their young artists, including Jane Manning who had her London debut with PLG in 1964, as well as stars in the making.

The concert began and finished with two pieces sung by the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir, conducted by Stephen Jackson . The first was a slightly strange work 'Magdalen at Michael's gate' written in 1913 by Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941) who was 'Master of the Queen's Music' from 1936 to 1941. Even the conductor mentioned something about getting the short straw. Based on a poem by Henry Kingsley there were birds in the piano accompaniment and the sopranos repeated the monotone bird tweeting 'let her in'. Overall the choir had a lovely sound and did their best with the material. There were supposed to be two of his songs – but the music for the second one did not arrive from the library in time.

Alissa Firsova
Alissa Firsova
Next was a complete change and quite thrilling. Alissa Firsova played 'Masques, four pieces for solo piano' (1924) by Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) who was 'Master of the Queen's Music' from 1953 to 1975 and took over from Sir Arnold Bax in the year of the Queen's coronation. This was work so fresh it could have been written yesterday. In the early 1920's Bliss was experimenting with sounds and techniques trying which he would later integrate into a uniquely dissonant and vigorous style that was as English as his contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams . These four short pieces were delightfully dissonant, making use of forceful rhythms and different parts of the piano's range. There were hints of half remembered tunes and dances – but all with the wrong notes. But it was Firsova's performance that brought them spectacularly to life.

The Bliss was followed by Judith Weir's (1954-) 'King Harold Saga'. Jane Manning originally commissioned this work, and sang at its first performance in 1979, so it was real treat to hear her today. The saga is a mixture of spoken word and sung lyrics, and uses the story telling technique of 'using voices' for different characters. She performed with clarity, confidence and humour and brought this tale to life – not bad at all for 76.

The first half finished with Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934 - it was during the tenure of Elgar that musick lost its 'k') and Tasmin Little accompanied by John Lenehan another PLG protégé. Little played the 'Chanson de Matin, Chanson de Nuit, and Salut d'Amour' which were written in 1898-99 and 1888 (Salut d'Amour). Romantically Victorian in style (Elgar was the earliest composer in the concert) they were appreciated by the audience. With her skill and sensitivity I would have loved to have heard her play longer - and to play something contrasting, to balance out the sugar.

After the interval we had more Weir – 'Blue-green hill' (2013) performed by the Park Lane Ensemble who then provided the performers for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' (1934-) 'Hymnos' (written in1967) performed virtuosically by Harry Cameron-Penny on clarinet and James Young on piano, and 'Legend' by Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) who was 'Master of the Queen's Music' from 1942 to 1953, performed by Diana Mathews on viola with Young.

Joanna Skillett sang 'Four songs from: 'From a child's garden' for soprano and piano' accompanied by Melanie Jones. Together they brought light and shade to dark music from Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003 - 'Master of the Queen's Music' 1975-2003) finishing with a humorous flourish.

One of the nice things about this concert was that there was something for everyone. Elgar and Bax for the roses and chocolate lovers, Bliss and Maxwell Davies for the dissonance crew. Tying everything together was Judith Weir with her own style somewhere between the two extremes. Her 'Psalm 148' (2009), featuring Vanessa Ritchie-Suarez on trombone with the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir, brought the evening to a close.

This concert was part of a 'Concerts by candlelight' series from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse which includes early music from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to the London Jazz Festival . The Park Lane Group continues its series of concerts of emerging artists at the Purcell Room, Wigmore Hall, St James's Piccadilly and St Martin in the Fields.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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