Sunday 25 November 2018

Old Bones: Nico Muhly, Iestyn Davies and the Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place

Nico Muhly (Photo Ana Cuba)
Nico Muhly (Photo Ana Cuba)
Nico Muhly, Thomas Adès, Satie, Debussy, Brahms; Iestyn Davies, Aurora Orchestra, Nico Muhly; Kings Place Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 October 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An eclectic mix of old and new in the first of Nico Muhly's residencies with the Aurora Orchestra

The combination of counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, composer Nico Muhly and the Aurora Orchestra meant that the sold out notices appeared early for their concert, Old Bones, at Kings Place on Friday 23 November 2018, the first concert in Nico Muhly's residency with the orchestra.

The concert, programmed by Nico Muhly, gave us an eclectic selection of music centred around Muhly's new version of Old Bones for counter-tenor and ensemble, alongside his Clear Music, Motion, and his arrangement of John Dowland's Time Stands Still plus Thomas Adès' The Lover in Winter and The Four Quarters, Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No. 3, Claude Debussy's Danse Sacree et Danse Profane, and Johannes Brahms' Gestillte sehnsucht. Iestyn Davies joined members of the Aurora Orchestra, Sally Pryce (harp), John Reid (piano/celeste), Alex Wood (violin), Jamie Campbell (violin), Helene Clement (viola), Sebastien van Kujik (cello) and Peter Sparks (clarinet).

The idea behind the programme was evidently to bring together different pieces where the composers were engaging with the music of the past, and also explored the complexities of time in music. There were, indeed, some intriguing juxtapositions such as Satie's Gymnopedie No. 3 flowing straight into the dramatic opening of Thomas Adès' song cycle The Lover in Winter. But overall the programme never quite came into focus, and it felt like an assemblage of interesting ideas rather than a strong single concept.

We opened with John Reid's calm and sensual account of Satie's Gymnopedie No. 3, then he and Iestyn Davies brought out the dramatic, neo-classical quality of Thomas Adès' early song cycle The Lover in Winter. The way Ades set the Latin text rather made me think of Stravinsky.

Nico Muhly's Clear Music for cello, harp and celeste (Sebastien van Kujik, Sally Pryce, John Reid) was evidently based on a bar of music from John Tavener's motet Mater Christi Sanctissima. The result was a rhapsodic cello solo combined with some very striking (and sometimes music-box-like) textures from the harp and celeste.

Debussy's Danse Sacree et Danse Profane for harp and quartet (Sally Price, Alex Wood, Jamie Campbell, Helene Clement, Sebastien van Kujik) was written to show off the newly invented chromatic harp and it certainly puts the harp through its paces. From the opening, the players brought out the seductive quality of Debussy's sound-world, with a poised performance which balanced the instruments beautifully.

The first half ended with Iestyn Davies, Helen Clement and John Reid performing Brahms' Gestillte Sehnsucht, one of a pair of songs he wrote for alto, viola and piano as a present for the violinist Joachim and his singer wife. There was a husky, mellow quality to Clement's viola tone which contrasted finely with Iestyn Davies' lovely clear account of the vocal part. Davies' performance was all about the beauties of line, and he did not relish the words the way some singers do, but overall this was nicely mellow performance.

Nico Muhly's Old Bones was originally written for counter-tenor and lute (it was premiered by Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford at Wigmore Hall in 2013 and subsequently included on a live recital disc, see my review). The piece sets Muhly's own conflation of texts, including news reports and an interview with Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, relating to the finding of the grave of King Richard III which Muhly combines with texts praising the man who is said to have killed the king, Rhys ap Tomas. The result, whilst in one movement, is a multi-section work which mixed lyrical arioso with some lovely textures instrumental writing. The new arrangement was for counter-tenor and ensemble of string quartet, harp, and piano with Nico Muhly conducting.

Whilst the original version was a fine re-invention of the lute song, by expanding things for the new arrangement Muhly has somewhat lost the intimacy of the original version. But there was much to enjoy in Muhly's orchestration and the way he combined some lovely textures with catchy rhythms.

This was followed by another Muhly piece, Motion for string quartet, piano and clarinet. A rather dramatic piece where Muhly plays with repeated cells of rhythmic music to create something rather striking. Motion dated from 2010, and was followed by another work from the same year, Thomas Adès' Four Quarters for string quartet. This four-movement work, with each movement given an intriguing title ('Nightfalls', 'Morning Dew', 'Days', 'The Twenty-Fifth Hour') does not give up its secrets easily, and intrigues in the way the music might relate to the titles. The eerie world of 'Nightfalls' with its striking textures gives way to the vigorous pizzicato of 'Morning Dew'. 'Days' has a throbbing pulse which gradually takes over the whole piece, whilst 'The Twenty-Fifth Hour' is full of complex rhythms and counterpoint. The performance from Alex Wood, Jamie Campbell, Helene Clement, and Sebastien van Kujik was a real tour de force.

We finished with Nico Muhly's arrangement of Dowland's Time Stands Still for Iestyn Davies and the ensemble, full of seductive instrumental and vocal textures. As an encore we were treated to an aria from Nico Muhly's latest opera Marnie, which Iestyn Davies has been singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; here he was accompanied by Nico Muhly at the piano.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Storytelling in music: Kevin Puts and his opera Silent Night - interview
  • Puccini premiere:  Opera Rara gives the original version of Le Willis a rare outing (★★★★) -  Opera review
  • Long time ago: Samling showcase at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A series of concentric circles: Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble  - interview
  • Auf Flügeln des Gesanges: Romantic songs and piano transcriptions from Christoph Prégardien & Cyprien Katsaris (★★★★★) - CD review
  • The English Concert in Baroque concertos  - (★★★★) CD review
  • Widening the audience: I chat to Christopher Glynn about his Schubert in English project - interview
  • Staging the unstageable: Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton from a different angle: arrangements for brass septet  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Love & Prayer: Nadine Benjamin debut solo album (★★★★) - CD review
  • A sense of subtext: Joe Cutler's Elsewhereness on NMC (★★★★) - CD review
  • Otherwordly concerns: Anderswelt - Marlis Petersen and Camillo Radicke in late-Romantic lieder (★★★★) - CD review
  • Late genius and two sextets: Strauss, Haydn and Brahms at Conway Hall  (★★★½)  - concert review
  •  Home

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