Out of the Shadows

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Ancient and Modern: Helen Charlston & Toby Carr premiere Owain Park's new piece for mezzo-soprano and theorbo

Helen Charlston & Toby Carr (Photo Vivienne Monk)
Helen Charlston & Toby Carr (Photo Vivienne Monk)

Owain Park, Purcell, Strozzi, Eccles, Monteverdi; Helen Charlston, Toby Carr; City Music Foundation at Great Hall of St Bartholomew's Hospital

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Premiere of Owain Park's new work alongside vividly intense programme of Renaissance laments and mad songs

The collaboration between mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston and lutenist Toby Carr goes back some years, with a repertoire of English and Italian renaissance music from Purcell to Monteverdi to Strozzi and beyond. The idea of having some contemporary music to sit alongside this developed (as an operatic soloist and ensemble singer Charlston is very much involved in singing contemporary music alongside older repertoire). Charlston was a City Music Foundation artist in 2018, and the City Music Foundation commissioned a new song-cycle for Charlston and Carr from composer Owain Park. One movement was premiered at the Barbican Centre's Sound Unbound festival in 2019, but the events of 2020 rather delayed the complete cycle.

Last night, 7 September 2021, mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston and theorbo player Toby Carr finally gave the premiere of Owain Park's Battle Cry, commissioned by the City Music Foundation (CMF), at a CMF concert at the Great Hall of St Bartholomew's Hospital (as part of CMF's collaboration with Bart's Heritage). Also in the programme were a series of laments and mad songs by Purcell, Strozzi, Eccles and Monteverdi including Strozzi's L'Eraclito Amoroso, Purcell's Dido's Lament and Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna.

Designed by James Gibbs and with an adjacent staircase featuring large-scale paintings by William Hogarth, the Great Hall at St Bartholomew's Hospital is a remarkably grand interior dating from the 1730s, but it proved to be a fine space in which to hear Helen Charlston and Toby Carr; sufficient space to allow the music to breathe yet preserving that sense of intimacy that this repertoire requires. Whilst some of the music was written for the stage, in performing it with just theorbo accompaniment Charlston and Carr were reclaiming it for a long tradition of taking music from the opera house into aristocratic salons.

We began with 'Oh lead me to some peaceful gloom' from Purcell's incidental music to Bonduca, written in 1695 for a play by Fletcher and Beaumont. Charlston and Carr began in intimate style, plangent, expressive voice over a bare theorbo bass line. This was closer to expressive recitative than aria, though there were moments of fabulous bravura (such as when the 'trumpets sound'). Charlston's attention to the words was very fine indeed, some moments really hitting home and I imagined what it must have been like to hear a performance as intensely engaging and involving as this as part of a staging. Terrific.

Barbara Strozzi wrote and published a remarkable amount of music, most of it for herself to perform so we have to image her accompanying herself on the theorbo when performing L'Eraclito Amoroso. One wonders how she coped, the large theorbo must surely have inhibited her breath control. The piece moved fluidly between powerful recitative and more formal moments with the voice unfolding over the ground bass of a chaconne. Again the words were vividly done here, and for all the formal structures, Strozzi makes the music flow fluidly, leading to the strong drama of the bleak ending.

John Eccles wrote a great deal of music for the theatre and he was very much the go to person after Purcell's death, though much of it languishes at the moment. Restless in Thought was written in 1696 for the play She Ventures He Wins, written anonymously by a young woman. Whereas French music was a powerful influence on Purcell, Eccles seems to have emulated the Italians and this was fluid Italian-style recitative with vivid moments full of ornament.

Performing Dido's Lament, from Purcell's opera, with just voice and theorbo brought great intimacy to the piece and showed how Purcell's writing links to the other works in this programme. The performance from Charlston and Carr was devastating, power and intimacy combined.

Owain Park's Battle Cry, with a text by the poet Georgia Way, consists of four movements each featuring a mythological, fictional or historical heroine who is given a new voice. We began with Boudicca, the poet meditating on the way history has changed Boudicca's story. Park's music made great use of Renaissance forms but with modern harmonic twists, so here we had voice undulating over ground bass, but with spare yet spiky harmony. Even when the music gets more structured, the hints of the past continue yet Park allows the harmonies to disrupt what might have become comfortable pastiche. The second movement, Philomela in the forest, dealt with a mythological nymph though the way she was singing about the falcon rather brought to mind Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto for Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten. This was again spare, but fast and vivid, with hints of folksong and hints of a formal structure, but Park constantly shatters and disrupts the flow. For A singer's ode to Sappho, Charlston was unaccompanied, singing a tone row in striking starkness, her plangent voice complementing the bleak unease of the music. Finally Marietta which seems to refer to the character in Korngold's opera Die tote Stadt, as the song's opening line quotes the German text from Marietta and Paul's ecstatic duet in the opera. The words give a more complex and definite presence to Marietta than does Korngold's opera, and Park seemed to be channelling Barbara Strozzi in the way he moved between free recitative and more formal elements over a modern ground bass. The result captured dark melancholy and deep thoughts.

There was more Strozzi next, La Travagliata, and for all the rather intense words this was melodically song-like but with striking drama at the end. Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna is the only surviving portion of his second opera, L'Arianna from 1608. Effectively a ten-minute sequence of lyrical recitative, Charlston brought plangent intensity to the piece with both performers giving the music the freedom it needs. Charlston very much embodied Arianna, both vocally and physically, making a compelling performance.

We ended with something of a winding down after all the intensity, Purcell's Evening Hymn and the addition of the theorbo gave quite a continental feel to the piece. Sprinkingly through the programme were also some theorbo solos, short pieces introduced as something of a palate cleanser and allowing us to savour Toby Carr's expressively deft talents. The concert was preceded by an engaging pre-concert talk by Jeremy Summerly on the subject of music ancient and modern ranging from the original Academy of Ancient Music to Arnold Dolmetsch.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Arthur Honegger: Mélodies et Chansons from Holger Falk & Steffen Schleiermacher - record review
  • The last piano solos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov in a recital of power and subtlety by Nikita Lukinov at Pushkin House  - concert review
  • The history behind: 17 June 1800 - Puccini's Tosca and Sardou's La Tosca - feature article
  • A sequence of vivid characters: William Walton's A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table alongside Puccini, Verdi and Finzi in a superb recital from Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper concert review
  • Composing is not something that you decide to do, it chooses you: I chat to composer Richard Danielpour about his new work which arose directly out of the events of 2020 - interview
  • Quite an occasion: Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts early Handel and Bach for his 60th appearance at the BBC Proms - concert review
  • Surprisingly satisfying: Bach's The Art of Fugue from Les inAttendus (accordion, bass viol, Baroque violin) - record review
  • Unsettling and distinctive: Gregory Brown's new work for vocal sextet and electronics, Fall and Decline - record review
  • Against the odds: a fine musical performance triumphs over unseasonal weather and an unsympathetic sound system in ENO's venture south of the river - opera review
  • Rich orchestral textures, vibrant performances, political engagement: Max Richter's Exiles from Baltic Sea Philharmonic & Kristjan Järvi - record review 
  • Creating the musical language that belongs to the film: I chat to composer Benjamin Woodgates about writing for film, notably his first feature film score for Dream Horse interview
  • A complex mix of dance, text and music: William K.z.'s The Growth of Silk at Camden Fringe - opera review
  • Home

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