United Kingdom Glass, Ian Stephens: Liz Weir (narrator), Mavron String Quartet, St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 23.4.2013. (PCG)
Glass: String Quartet No 3 ‘Mishima’
Ian Stephens: A wailing on the wind
The history of melodrama (in its proper and original sense of a dramatic recitation accompanied by music) has a long and honoured history stretching back to encompass works by major composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Strauss, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bliss and Vaughan Williams. But such works have always been rarities, and are even more rarely performed – with the exception of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. There are two principal reasons for this. One is that the spoken voice, at least in the days before electronic amplification, had difficulty in projecting over an instrumental accompaniment, so that persistent compromises had to be made between the two elements; and the other was the sheer difficulty of co-ordination between the speaker and the players, which was exacerbated the more of the latter there were. Nowadays when the first problem is readily soluble, the medium has found a firm basis in film; but the second problem remains, and is not resolved by the habit on recordings of over-dubbing the voice (as was done, for example, on the Supraphon recording of Fibich’s Hippodamia trilogy) – the whole process relies upon the interaction between voice and players.
In Ian Stephens’s A wailing on the wind the second problem was not altogether solved, but the result was nevertheless most engrossing. The story by Liz Weir involves the gentle interrogation of an old Irishwoman by her grandson, and develops into a touching story of a wartime romance between the grandmother and an American serviceman, with the banshee announcing the death of the latter. Liz Weir, who narrated her own story with great presence, admitted that the use of a script so tightly controlled by the musical thread was at odds with her usual improvisatory style (which she had earlier demonstrated with a number of short tales of her own). But apart from a couple of slips of co-ordination at the beginning (clearly caused by nervousness) the performance soon settled into a thrillingly unified experience. The expressive score by Ian Stephens mirrored the narrative expertly, with references to Irish dancing and American swing bands. The only point where I felt he missed the mark was with his assignment of the call of the banshee to a wailing viola. The composer told me that he wanted to convey the idea of an old crone here, but surely the point of the banshee’s call is its persistent description in legend as shrill. The work is to be given again twice in the course of the next week – on 26 April at Rhosgilwen in Pembrokeshire, and on 29 April at the Belfast Waterfront. By then I am sure that the performances will be even more closely integrated, and hopefully they will attract a larger audience than the pitifully few listeners who attended this Cardiff performance and were very moved by the experience.
The players of the Mavron Quartet, who commissioned A wailing on the wind, are no strangers to modern music. Last year they gave a workshop performance of sections of my own string quartet Trafodaeth, preceding a recital which included Shostakovich and Philip Glass’s Second Quartet. Here they preceded the melodrama with a performance of Glass’s Third Quartet. The performance might have been helped by the halo of a more resonant acoustic; but the sound did little to disguise the basic monotony of the musical material, despite the best attempts of the players to infuse expressive meaning with noticeable accelerations of the pulse in the first and last movements. The very brief second movement brought a welcome and very beautiful melody, and there was plenty of dynamic variety elsewhere (not all marked by the composer); but time and again one longed for a change of texture – not a single pizzicato or tremolo in sight. But their playing throughout was clean and responsive, both in the Glass and even more gratifyingly in the Stephens piece.
Paul Corfield Godfrey