Friday 2 February 2024

A vivid panorama of Freya Waley-Cohen's compositional interests & techniques: Manchester Collective in Spell Book at the Barbican

Image of Freya Waley-Cohen for Spell Book courtesy of the Barbican Centre
Image of Freya Waley-Cohen for Spell Book (courtesy of the Barbican Centre)

Spell Book - Freya Waley-Cohen; Héloïse Werner, Fleur Barron, Katie Bray, Manchester Collective; Milton Court, Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 1 February 2024

Music of true emotional power, direct, forceful and dramatic; it was clear on the strength of these fiery, fully committed performances to hear why the Manchester Collective keep returning to Waley-Cohen's compositions

Freya Waley-Cohen's fruitful and ongoing collaborations with the enthusiastic and engaged musicians of the Manchester Collective led to this concert at the Barbican Centre's Milton Court on 1 February 2024; a retrospective of her work with them over the past five years, including the premieres of her latest compositions for the group. Starting off with her enchanting tone poem Naiad, the bulk of the programme was filled with performances of the songs that make up her ever-growing song cycle Spell Book with soprano Héloïse Werner, and mezzo-sopranos Fleur Barron and Katie Bray.

Naiad, the only purely instrumental item in the programme, presented a sound world of flickering, shimmering light. Sustained, duet lines from flute and clarinet, lambent and glowing, were punctuated with delicately overlapping piano and harp figurations and gently wrapped in a gossamer tissue of string textures. Conductorless, led from the violin by artistic director Rakhi Singh, the ensemble featured string quintet, flute, clarinet, piano and harp and the players maintained throughout a connection with each other which seemed so intimate that it felt almost as if the audience were intruding into some private, spiritual moment.

The deep, concentrated listening from the audience in the well-attended Milton Court hall intensified the spirituality of the moment, which was enhanced by the theatrical haze and the dramatic lighting, fading almost to black at the end, leaving the hall in a sustained, resonant silence.

Based on the spell poems from Rebecca Tamás's book WITCH, which Waley-Cohen read in the spring of 2019, the song cycle Spell Book now contains eight individual songs, two of which received their world premieres this evening. Working with a trio of singers, each with their own distinct vocal approaches, these eight songs presented a vivid panorama of Waley-Cohen's compositional interests & techniques.  [Tamás's book also inspired Waley-Cohen's 2022 opera, WITCH, premiered at the Royal Academy of Music and nominated for a 2022 Ivor Novello Award in the Stage Works Category].

The first songs, spell for Lillith & spell for sex featured the bright, radiant & nimble coloratura of Katie Bray. Her light, deft touch clearly conveyed a good deal of the mischief and violence of Tamás's words. Both her register and vocal character allowed her to blend subtly with the instrumental timbres - especially the woodwinds and violins - and although this led to the loss of some of the clarity of the text, it was perhaps more than made up for in raw sonic beauty. This was particularly sensual music, revelling in the intimate joys of flesh, of touch, of blood and filled with vital, expressive virtuosity. 

Soprano Héloïse Werner dazzled in the central trio of songs: spells for women's books, for joy, and for change. In particular, spell for joy was a spectacular vehicle for Werner's remarkable voice, allowing her to soar and swoop with the titular emotion, climaxing with rapid, ecstatic repetitions of the single word "yes". Preceding this, spell for women's books was incantatory, exploring single, repeated words as sonic events in their own rights (rites?) and placing Werner's enormously charming and dangerously alluring voice in opposition to glassy string timbres and explosive flurries of notes. 

The dark, characterful voice of Fleur Barron seemed ideally suited to the general nastiness and grim humour of much of the lyrics, and she clearly relished every corner of her pair of songs, spell for logic and spell for reality. Her precise delivery and clear enunciation conveyed every detail of the text in the hyper-heightened emotional world of Waley-Cohen's settings. Again, these were virtuosic pieces, demanding rapid changes of mood, pace and articulation, real close attention from the whole ensemble and an operatic, dramatic stage presence. This was absolutely enthralling stuff, drawing the audience deep into a world of dark passion and dangerous words.

For the final song, spell for the witch's hammer, (also receiving its world premiere in this concert), all three singers took to the stage with the full forces of the Manchester Collective instrumentalists in a tsunami of overlapping musical ideas. This stuttered and then roared into a kind of litany of terror. This rapidly built to a sinister and climactic evocation of violence, before sinking into numbing, terrifying bass rumbles and dire warnings of the witches, who would eat the book, and the reader, and finally everything. This was music of true emotional power, direct, forceful and dramatic. It was clear on the strength of these fiery, fully committed performances to hear why the Manchester Collective keep returning to Waley-Cohen's compositions - this, hopefully, is a collaboration which will continue for many years to come.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

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