Out of the Shadows

Friday, 26 November 2021

How I wonder what you are: RR Bennett, Hindemith, RVW, Schubert, Mussorgsky, Barber, and Alex Groves at Re-Sung

John Tenniel: the Mad Hatter (from Alice in Wonderland) reciting 'Twinkle, Twinkle, little bat'
John Tenniel: the Mad Hatter (from Alice in Wonderland)
reciting 'Twinkle, Twinkle, little bat'

How I wonder what you are
- RR Bennett, Hindemith, RVW, Schubert, Mussorgsky, Barber, Groves; Ben Vonberg-Clark, Stephen Fort, Edward Picton-Turbervill, Nick Quanrud; Re-Sung at St John the Divine, Kennington

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An engaging and imaginative programme about the wonder of the stars from a group of young artists at this lively concert series in Kennington

Re-Sung is a lively concert series organised by pianist Dylan Perez, and the latest season is presenting concerts at the Church of St John the Divine in Kennington, just up the road from where I live and another lovely example of how concert-life is, slowly, becoming more local.

On Wednesday 24 November 2021, Re-Sung presented a programme entitled How I wonder what you are which was curated by pianist and composer Edward Picton-Turbervill. Exploring our attitudes to the stars and, as Picton-Turberville explained in his introduction, trying to capture something of the wonder that we feel, it was a programme that mixed song and spoken word. Tenor Ben Vonberg-Clark and bass Stephen Fort performed songs by Richard Rodney Bennett, Hindemith, RVW, Schubert, Mussorgsky and Samuel Barber, there was the premiere of a new piece for piano and electronics by Alex Groves, and Nick Quanrud (who is a member of the clergy team at St John the Divine) gave a series of readings.

We began with Richard Rodney Bennett's 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star' from his 2004 cycle Songs before sleep, sung by Stephen Fort. Bennett entirely re-invents the nursery rhyme, there is no discernible trace of the familiar melody. Instead we have a slow and intense number which treats the words seriously. Yet and yet. One phrase, a rhythmic figure in the piano with the voice coming in over, seemed to be uncannily reminiscent of a Broadway song, which made you wonder. Fort sang with a lovely resonant tone, great diction and I loved the way he stretched his rich voice across the notes.

I have to confess that Paul Hindemith's Walt Whitman setting, 'Sing on there, in the swamp' from his 1942 cycle, Nine English Songs, was entirely new to me. Some way from the enfant terrible Hindemith, the music was thoughtful and almost mystical, and received a fine lyrical performance from tenor Ben Vonberg-Clark. Fort returned for 'The infinite shining heavens' from RVW's Songs of Travel, and brought a feeling of luxuriance to the vocal line with his rich dark sound. Thoughtful, with fine playing from Picton-Turbervill, the climaxes were more intense than mystical. 

Picton-Turbervill had commissioned a new piece from Alex Groves [see my recent interview with Alex], Dark Sky/Red Shift for piano and electronics. Simple at first, with a barely there wash of electronic sound, speed developed and piano textures got more complex, with the work being highly dynamic yet always with a sense of clarity to the material. The slow build-up led to a huge climax where the electronics almost took over.

The next two songs were not in English. Schubert's Die Sterne was sung by Fort in a serious yet engaging manner, whilst Mussorgsky's Where are you, Little star? (which originally used the star as an analogy for the loved one), saw Vonberg-Clark combining haunting melancholy with strong, vibrant tone, colouring the voice very differently to the lyric Hindemith. And Vonberg-Clark finished the recital with Samuel Barber's Sure on this shining night, with a performance notable for a beautifully floated mezza voce that brought out the mystic elements of the song.

In between the songs Nick Quanrud gave readings from diverse sources as Russian poet Afanasy Fet, Aristotle on how the idea that the movement of the heaven produces a sound is untrue, Richard Wigmore's translation of Von Leitner's German poem set by Schubert in Die Sterne, the Romanian poet Lucien Blaga and a poem by Edward Picton-Turbervill.

Picton-Turbervill's hand-written, delightfully low-fi programme included a series of literary quotations about the stars along with a series of stupendous facts about the known universe

There was only one thing missing; I thought it a shame that the chance was not taken to lighten the mood with Lewis Carroll's parody, Twinkle, Twinkle, little bat from Alice in Wonderland, where it is recited by the Mad Hatter. [The bat was the nickname of Carroll's teacher, Professor Bartholomew Price, who amongst other things was  a visitor of Greenwich Observatory and donated an interesting astronomical clock to Gloucester cathedral]

The result was imaginative and engaging, creating a thoughtful journey through different aspects to the heavens. As a programme it would seem to have scope for expansion and development, and with some lovely performances from the young artists was great to encounter virtually on my doorstep.

Re-Sung continues next week, 1 December 2021, with a programme of Spanish song.







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