Psappha’s fabulous Songs of the World concert at Manchester’s Hallé St. Peter’s

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Songs of the World: Webern, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Athanasia Kontou, Alissa Firsova, Elisabeth Lutyens, Schoenberg: Daisy Brown (soprano), Psappha (Conrad Marshall [flute],  Dov Goldberg [clarinet], Tim Williams [percussion], Benjamin Powell [piano/celeste], Benedict Holland, Sophia Rosa [violins], Vicci Wardman [viola], Jennifer Langridge [cello], James Manson [double bass]) / Stephen Barlow (conductor). Hallé St. Peter’s, Manchester, 28.11.2019. (CC)

Psappha at Hallé St. Peter’s

Webern – String Quartet, Op.28 (1936-8)
Cheryl Frances-HoadThe Whole Earth Dances (2016)
Athanasia KontouAfter Psappha (2018) Alissa FirsovaSongs of the World (world premiere)

Elisabeth LutyensThe Valley of Hatsu-Se, Op.62 (1965)
Schoenberg arr. Webern – Chamber Symphony No.1 in E, Op.9 (1906)

This was the first public concert back at the newly renovated Hallé St. Peter’s in Ancoats, Manchester. Spick and span and yet, through adjustable lighting, highly atmospheric, the space is literally around the corner from Hallé St. Michael’s, this latter a venue where recently I was privileged to experience the recording of one of Psappha’s brilliant Composing For series.

As conducted by Stephen Barlow this was a more traditional concert in structure, but remained absolutely fascinating in content, with world premieres (plural) rubbing shoulders with established Second Viennese Classics (the Webern String Quartet and the Schoenberg First Chamber Symphony) plus the fascinating addition of Elisabeth Lutyens’s The Valley of Hatsu-Se. It was impeccably organised, with pre-pre-concert nibbles prior to a pre-concert event that included a film of Douglas Jarman on the music of the Second Viennese School (Jarman was present, too), and introductions to their pieces by Athanasia Kontou and Alissa Firsova (potted versions of these latter recurred during the concert itself).

Webern’s String Quartet is a magnificent example of this composer’s workmanship: Jarman pointed to Webern’s doctoral thesis on Heinrich Isaac as a clue to some of the processes here in terms of counterpoint, particularly canons. In addition, the row itself includes two transpositions of B-A-C-H. Those canons are prevalent in the second movement (a double canon in the form of a scherzo); the composer himself described the first movement as a set of variations and the final as a fugue (albeit one that works with rhythmic retrogrades rather than harmonic plateaux). The performance itself was impeccable, particularly when it came to phrase shaping: motifs passed from one instrument to the other seamlessly. There was even a hint of the dance at times in the outer movements. The pizzicatos had real resonance, while the group found huge beauty of line in the central movement.

Commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s The Whole Earth Dances has a title that shoots off in multiple directions, from health foods to Birtwistle. It was premiered at Spitalfields in 2016. The composer speaks of the need to ‘really notice and respect the land, to feel a connection to it’. The piece is inspired by poems by Ted Hughes from Wodwo and is cast in one single movement that may be subdivided into five sections: thistles, ferns, thistles, ferns, thistles. Frances-Hoad deliberately sets out to create the sense of timelessness in this piece for piano, violin, viola, cello and double-bass. Dramatic gestures and the power of the unison are vital components here initially before a sense of nostalgia, pining and loneliness sets in. Frances-Hoad often sets up expectations only to gleefully confound them.

Athanasia Kontou’s After Psappha also plays with the words in the title, given that Psappha is another name for Sappho, as well as, the name of the present ensemble. Composed for a workshop at the Royal Northern College of Music with Psappha – the ensemble which is itself named after a piece by Xenakis – After Psappha is scored for a Pierrot Ensemble line-up. The sparseness of Kontou’s textures link, in this context, to the Webern. A beautifully played cello solo by Jennifer Langridge was but one highlight of many. It was fascinating how the chordal structures, heard in instrumental combination, seemed to be crystallised by the piano. On a performance level, the control of the string harmonics and their relationship to the flute was extraordinary in its control, while the strumming of the lower strings of the piano by Ben Powell resulted in a guttural sound like low thunder.

Finally for the first half, Alissa Firsova’s Songs of the World. The influence of Vienna is a recurrent theme in Firsova’s music (the BBC Philharmonic performed her Die Windsbraut, inspired by the story of Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka). The present piece is a Psappha commission, the directive being a Viennese theme of the composer’s choice in the spirit of genius loci. Firsova sets three poems by Hugo von Hofmannsthal who is, of course, better known for his libretti. Daisy Brown was the astonishing soprano in these lovely settings, imbued with the spirit also of Richard Strauss’s music. The large ensemble included celeste (played by the pianist). The fairy tale scoring of ‘Weltgeheimnis’ (‘The Secret of the World’) speaks of what we cannot grasp about our planet, but also questions whether everything one experiences is just a dream, anyway. The music requires a clear enunciation of the text, and Brown’s diction was exemplary, her sensitivity to the text, and Firsova’s setting beyond question. For ‘Lied der Welt’ (‘Song of the World’), Firsova evokes the sense of a (Richard) Strauss Waltz. The poem was written late in Hofmannsthal’s life, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finally, ‘Was ist die Welt?’ (‘What is the World?’), reflective, contemplative and with a tinge of sadness. The wind writing, plus the celesta halos, take us to the world of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, particularly that opera’s closing section. The level of musical tribute is high, but surprisingly Firsova’s piece does not feel derivative. Rather it is fascinating, brilliantly refreshing – great that it preceded the interval therefore – and thought-provoking. There is more depth here than one can grasp on one pass, I would suggest.

There were only two pieces in the second part of the concert. The first, Elisabeth Lutyens’s The Valley of Hatsu-Se was written in 1965 but only published in 1996. Of around a quarter of an hour’s duration, it seemed to extend the second part to the perfect length. The piece sets Japanese verse, mainly in tanka form (5-7-5-7-7 syllables). Again, there is a reference to a Pierrot Ensemble (slightly abridged to flute, clarinet, cello and piano). Disjunct but comprehensible thanks to finely judged repetition, the demands on the players are many. Both soprano Daisy Brown and pianist Ben Powell excelled, as did cellist Jennifer Langridge in her cadenza. What was so impressive was the purity of the intervals from all, but especially in the vocal line – there appeared to be no break in Brown’s traversal of huge intervallic spaces.

Surely the most familiar item on the programme was the Schoenberg First Chamber Symphony – albeit here in Webern’s arrangement for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano. As might be expected, the demands are huge on the pianist and were more than ably negotiated here. There is also an impression of objectification of the score that enables one to marvel at the contrapuntal intricacies all the more. Linear clarity was the watchword here (and a special mention this time to the accuracy of Benedict Holland’s violin). Yes, there is some cushioning – the climactic horn octaves here on the piano, where one does not hear the sense of the horn players’ strain – but the shrinking of the scoring seems to concentrate everything, including the emotive power of quartal harmonies. A remarkable close to a fabulous concert.

Up next is a swathe of Psappha’s Composing For events, including composing for free bass accordion, sitar, piano and cello (each one a separate day). Then in early February 2020, a programme In the light of air couples Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s piece of that name with Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

Colin Clarke

For more about Psappha click here.

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