Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hebrides Ensemble with Jane Irwin - Queens Hall 11 August 2007

So here we are, climbing the mountain of another year's Edinburgh Festival schedule. To begin at the beginning, or very nearly (this was, I think, the second show in the official festival) we rolled up at the Queens Hall to see mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin appearing with the Hebrides Ensemble. The concert began with Janáček's Mládi, a great piece for flute/oboe/clarinet/bass clarinet/bassoon/horn which doesn't get played all that often. Some fabulous horn playing from Steven Stirling (I had forgotten the extent to which the horn glues the whole thing together), solid bass clarinet from Matthew Hunt, and good performances from everyone else (though clarinettist Maximiliano Martin is one of those players who weaves around a lot which was a little distracting). Next we had an arrangement by Edward Harper for chamber ensemble [pno/2vlns/vla/vlc/fl(picc)/cl(bcl)/hn] of Mahler's song cycle Kindertotenlieder. Rather to our surprise they didn't use a conductor, which must have made life pretty difficult in places. Indeed, the beginning of the fourth song was a bit rocky for a few seconds; though they nailed the difficult start of the final In diesem Wetter. Jane Irwin was in good voice: some slightly iffy intonation at the very start settled down quickly and was probably just adrenaline. Edward Harper was clearly in the audience upstairs (out of our sight) as he got an acclamatory wave from the band at the end. Special praise to William Conway for his cello playing.

In the second half, we had a Nigel Osborne piece, not listed as a premiere but clearly fairly fresh (and the man himself came up to take a bow at the end so I'm guessing maybe the first big public airing). The piece was called Balkan Dances and Laments, scored for piano, violin, viola, cello and oboe, and arose from Osborne's interest in South Balkan music and especially in the relationship between its rhythmic structures and its harmonic ones. I'm not very familiar with Osborne's music, and while BD&L didn't take me out of my comfort zone as a listener it took me well beynd it in terms of my ability to analyse what I was hearing in any coherent way. There were inevitably some sections which sounded like Bartók, sufficently so in a couple of places that I suspect deliberate homage rather than mere coincidence of musical roots. One interesting feature was that the pianist, as well as playing normally, is required at both the beginning and the end to play some of the piano strings with what looked like a loop of nylon tape (a violin bow without the stick, as it were) to create low hums. Overall quite an effective piece, and I may give it aother shot when BBC radio 3 broadcasts the concert (on August 28th, I think).

Finally Jane Irwin came back on for the piece I was most interested in, Luciano Berio's Folk Songs. Berio is one of those composers best known for his sometimes pretty extreme modernism, but in these songs written for his then wife Cathy Berberian he shows a charming and approachable side. Some of the songs are straightforward (-ish) arrangements of traditional songs from Armenia, Sicily, Sardinia and the Auvergne (the latter taken from Canteloube's famous collection). The two American songs are actually compositions by the late great John Jacob Niles (folk-song collector, singer and dulcimerist extraordinaire). The Italian songs in the suite are pure Berio in their music (though I think traditional in lyrics). Finally, there is a glorious Azerbaijan Love Song which was found by Cathy Berberian on an old Soviet 78 rpm record. She transcribed the text (in an Azerbaijani dialect) phonetically; apart from one passage - sung in Russin for some reason - in which love is compared to a stove, the lyrics have to date defied translation.

Jane Irwin did a magnificent job on the Berio songs. Berberian had a uniquely flexible voice and a prodigious talent, and any singer tackling a piece written for her is liable to find it a tall order. In the songs where a robust approach is called for (the programme notes describe Berberian "bawling with the subtlety of a fishmonger" in her recording of A la femminisca) the strain of simply not being Cathy perhaps showed a little, but Ms Irwin clearly wasn't going to be overcome by it. In the more delicately written songs her voice was very beautiful, and all the performances were perfectly judged (and beautifully supported by the ensemble, now comprising flute, clarinet, viola, cello, harp and two percussionists). (A propos the latter, one doesn't often see two sets of tubular bells being played at the same time!) For the final Azerbaijan Love Song everyone, but most especially Jane Irwin, simply let rip with the sheer joy of music-making. Tremendous. Listen for yourselves when the BBC broadcast it.

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