Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble’s challenging programme performed with conviction

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Greg Caffrey, Birtwistle, Schoenberg: Malachy Frame (baritone), Sarah Richmond (mezzo-soprano), Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble (Aisling Agnew [flute], David McCann [cello], Daniel Browell [piano], Sarah Watts [clarinet], Joanne Quigley McParland [violin]) / Sinead Hayes (conductor), Steve Lee (stage designer). Sonic Lab, Queens University, Belfast, 28.3.2023. (RB)

Sinead Hayes conducts Sarah Richmond (mezzo-soprano) and Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble

Greg Caffrey – Death of a Naturalist
Birtwistle – Bogenstrich
Schoenberg – Pierrot Lunaire

This concert featured three works celebrating poetry and music while also paying tribute to Harrison Birtwistle who sadly passed away last year. The final work on the programme was Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire which created a seismic shock when it was first performed in 1912 and heavily influenced the future direction of Classical music.

The opening work on the programme was by Greg Caffrey who is the Artistic Director of Hard Rain. Caffrey’s song cycle, Death of a Naturalist sets four poems from Seamus Heaney’s poetry collection of the same name. The cycle was originally composed for piano and baritone, but Caffrey followed this up with a new version for woodwind, strings and baritone and it was this version which was performed at the concert. The four poems in the set offer biographical insights into the poet himself from his early memories of his father ploughing a field in ‘Follower’ to the ups and downs of married life in ‘Honeymoon Flight’.

I enjoyed the rhythmic vitality of the first song, ‘Follower’ and the way in which it skilfully evoked the natural setting. The lyrical vocal line in the third song entitled ‘Poem’ was very affecting against suspended lines in the woodwind. Malachy Frame sang with great lyricism and beauty of tone and his diction was very clear although there was some weakness at the bottom of the vocal register. There were also some initial balance issues between Frame and the ensemble in the first song, although these were resolved as the work progressed. The Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble brought an impressive variety of tone colours to the work. Death of a Naturalist is an impressive piece of music and deserves to be performed much more widely.

Birtwistle’s Bogenstrich was commissioned by the Cheltenham Music Festival and was first performed on 22 May 2009. This work is a set of five meditations on a poem by Rilke. Malachy Frame, Daniel Browell and David McCann performed three of the five movements. Browell conjured gorgeous sonorities from the piano in the first piece while there was some impressive double stopping from McCann in the third. I must confess that I do find Birtwistle’s music particularly difficult and abstruse so, in spite of some very fine singing and playing from all three performers, I did not find this piece engaging.

Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was originally conceived as three sets of seven cabaret songs. In the first group the reciter sings of love, sex and religion, in the second of violence crime and blasphemy and in the third of his return home and of being haunted by his past. The songs deal with extreme and contradictory states of mind that link directly to the Freudian unconscious, such as desire and cruelty, or ecstasy and melancholy. Schoenberg wrote the work in a freely atonal style while using strict Classical forms such as canon, fugue, rondo and passacaglia. He also specified that the reciter should deliver the songs using expressionist Sprechstimme.

Steve Lee provided stylish and imaginative designs and costumes for this performance. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Richmond was wearing a skeletal dress over striped trousers and made up to look like Pierrot. While the work was being performed images of moonlight, skyscapes and weather phenomena were projected on to a curtain hanging above the performers and these were varied for each of the three sets of songs. An English translation of some of the words from the songs were projected at pivotal points in the performance.

While there was some very fine singing and playing, I was not convinced by this interpretation of Schoenberg’s masterpiece. Sarah Richmond’s Sprechstimme was a little over emphatic in some of the early songs. As the work progressed she became increasingly overwhelmed by the ensemble and the later songs were insufficiently characterised. The Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble seemed to relish Schoenberg’s brilliant instrumental writing and they did an excellent job breathing life into the shifting web of colours and textures. However, there needed to be a better balance of sound between the reciter and the players particularly in the final section of the piece.

This concert featured some very fine playing and singing, and it was good to see these modernist works being performed with such conviction.

Robert Beattie        

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