Wednesday 23 September 2020

From Early English epic to music-theatre: Toby Young's Beowulf with the Armonico Consort and AC Academy choirs

Toby Young Beowulf; Timothy West, Elin Manahan Thomas, Anne Dennholm, Toby Young, Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks; SIGNUM

Toby Young Beowulf; Timothy West, Elin Manahan Thomas, Anne Denholm, Toby Young, Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks; SIGNUM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 September 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A modern re-interpretation of the epic Early English poem with forces which include members of choirs from Armonico Consort's education scheme

The epic poem, known as Beowulf (the sole surviving manuscript lacks a title) is one of the most important surviving works of Old English literature. And for all its significance, it is also a rattling good tale, though the poem's length (some 3,000 lines) and form (alliterative Early English verse in heroic style) make the poem somewhat tricky to apprehend. No translation can ever quite do justice to the original, and the use of alliteration and other structural devices can seem archaic and, frankly, sometimes laughable, yet it takes some doing to appreciate the poem in its original Early English. But, if you put in the work then the effect of Beowulf recited aloud is thrilling.

This new disc from Signum Classics transfers Beowulf to something like music theatre, with music by Toby Young and a narration spoken by Timothy West. Christopher Monks directs the Armonico Consort with AC Academy Warwick and AC Academy Scholars, plus soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, harpist Anne Denholm and the composer on keyboards. The text of the piece is based on an original idea by Daniel Coleman-Cooke, with script by William Towers and libretto by Jennifer Thorp.

The inclusion of two choirs from Armonico Consort's AC Academy after-school choirs scheme give a clue to the work's genesis. This is an inclusive project with performers including 23 young people, and in his introductory note in the booklet Daniel Coleman-Cooke makes it clear that the work was aimed at adults and children, at those unfamiliar with the original.

The work interleaves musical sections with a spoken narration by Timothy West in the personage of the older Beowulf, remembering his first two great battles (with Grendel and with Grendel's Mother), and just before his final battle with the dragon. Any sense of verse to be declaimed (and whether in the original Early English or in translation Beowulf works wonderfully when spoken out loud) has been replaced by something more intimate, more colloquial, take this description of Grendel for instance, 'What was Grendel? Well to call him a troll would be about right, but that’s a bit of an insult to trolls. And it looks like we might have a few in tonight. He looked like a demon that had been crossed with a giant; a particularly cross giant.'

Once we accept the colloquial, rather fire-side, story-telling nature of this version of the poem, which concentrates on the rattling good yarn aspects of the original, then everything falls into place. Toby Young's music encompasses choruses for both the professional singers and the children, as well as solos for Elin Manahan Thomas (who plays both the Queen and Grendel's Mother), plus descriptive musical interludes. In style, it moves between folk-influenced, jazz and pop with flavours of contemporary composers such as John Adams, and Young has said that in writing the work he was very much influenced by film music.

Young writes well for his professional performers, with some striking choruses and a great deal of  imaginative writing for the instruments, this is very much a piece which sounds bigger than it is. Yet Young also crafts lines for the children which combine interest with singability, and he has Jonathan Dove's knack of combining professionals and amateurs into striking ensembles where each line is the right sort of challenge.

The recording was made after a whole series of live performances, so that what we hear is very much a living thing.

Toby Young: Beowulf - Armonico Consort in 2017 (Photo Peter Marsh/Ashmore Visuals)
Toby Young: Beowulf - Armonico Consort in 2017 (Photo Peter Marsh/Ashmore Visuals)

The result is a highly satisfying yet approachable score with nicely portable forces (professional choir, childrens choirs, harp, keyboards, solo soprano), plus narrator. It makes an engaging listen on disc and receives fine performances from all concerned, with the young people doing themselves proud on the disc (and there is plenty for them to do). Though I have to confess that I still find it difficult to settle to the style of the spoken narration, but if it gets audiences intrigued at the original then we must accept it.

I have to confess that whilst the work seems to have been conceived as a concert work, listening to it, I could not help but think that, with a few tweaks, it would make a terrific stage piece!

Toby Young (1990) - Beowulf
Timothy West (narrator)
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano)
Anne Denholm (harp)
Toby Young (keyboards)
Armonico Consort
AC Academy Warwick
AC Academy Scholars
Recorded in St Mark's Church, Leamington Spa, 8 & 9 July 2019

Available from Amazon

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