A half-hour song cycle by Harrison Birtwistle? I can see you making for the door (should you have turned up in the first place): it’s not everybody’s idea of a great night out. But while this sort of music isn’t easy, it can get under your skin. And whatever the initial feelings of the audience who came to hear Mark Padmore sing (among other things) Birtwistle’s Songs from the Same Earth in a north London church last week, I suspect that most of them were drawn into its stark, uncompromising but somehow seductive sound-world and were pleased they’d come.
The grand old man of British music, Birtwistle wrote this cycle specifically for Padmore’s light, bright tenor voice and it’s a perfect fit. The texts – obscurely fascinating by the poet David Harsent – get nowhere fast but tease out half-hidden meanings. And the piano-writing, masterfully executed here by Andrew West, rewards hard listening. Believe me.
This recital was the first in a new series of such things at a venue now called the Sherriff Centre but otherwise known as St James’s, West Hampstead: a once-grand Anglo-Catholic basilica that still functions as a church but multitasks as a post office, play school and community centre. This is to the detriment of the interior, which is horribly disfigured, but a way, I suppose, of keeping the premises viable. As a concert space, it’s comfortable if quirky, with sofas and coffee on the go. And future events promise more big names in collectable repertoire. Worth checking out.
The music highlight of the New Year, though, was a performance of Haydn’s Creation at Kings Place, done with minimum forces but maximum impact by the Age of Enlightenment orchestra and chorus under Adam Fischer: a conductor with a hotline to Haydn that’s earned him international supremacy in this repertoire. Creation is an oratorio that wears a smile from start to finish: an exultant, pre-lapsarian feast of positivity and joy.
And Fischer knows how to enjoy it. Effortlessly. Sharp, incisive rhythms and sense of purpose swept the music forward with exhilarating but not crazy speeds. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) was on a roll. And of the soloists, I liked the ardent, youthful tenor of James Way who sang the angel Uriel with cherubic charm.
The concert marked the launch of a new year-long theme at Kings Place which, by tradition, likes to organise its programming around some kind of unifying thread. Past years have profiled a particular composer (Bach) or instrument (the cello). But the 2018 theme is more conceptual: it’s time, a broad idea that almost any music can be made to fit, although Creation made a meaningful beginning. Memorable too.
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