Milton Court Studio, 4 November 2017

Iain Burnside is a commensurate communicator. Witness his often quirky, but always fascinating, programmes on Radio 3 over the years and his 5 star piano playing especially when he’s accompanying and particularly in lieder. Lucky are the students who study with him at Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he is a professor.

Swansong is, at one level, a warm and vibrant recital of Schubert’s last fourteen songs which the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger hooked together and marketed – very profitably – as Schwanengesang after Schubert’s death. At another level it’s a piece of musical theatre. Six actors deliver short monologues between the songs so that suddenly we see them from many different angles like a cubist painting. At a third level it’s a real joy to see yet another work devised and directed by Burnside in which the Guildhall musicians work with their counterparts in drama to present something which is as integrated as it is enlightening.

The piece is scored for a singer, a pianist and six actors. In fact here we get two excellent pianists (Michael Pandya and Dylan Perez) and four singers alongside six actors playing characters who all have a view about the composer and/or his songs over nearly two centuries – Brahms, Ivor Gurney, Haslinger, Franz von Schober, a cleaner and a modern student.

Harriet Burns, soprano, brings lots of warmth and passion along with a knowing twinkle in both eye and voice to the opening song Liebesbotschaft. James Robinson’s tenor and both baritones, Andrew Hamilton and Henri Tikkanen pack plenty of drama and colour especially in Die Stadt. All four voices blend well in the final Die Taubenpost.

Each of the actors does a fine job too. Burnside has ignored conventions of period so that all the speech is very modern, along with the costumes. It reminds you – rather neatly – that nothing changes and yes, the laundry maid would have known all about Schubert’s sickness once she started finding mercury stains (“they mix it with lard and rub it on the sores”) on the sheets.  Jordan Angell’s Haslinger is a spivy type who tells the audience to “cut me some slack, will you? And Declan Baxter’s Gurney, complete with authentic Gloucestershire accent, locked in City of London Mental Hospital, is both appealing and pitiful. The trouble with this approach is that without a programme you might struggle to work out who is who but it’s a minor gripe

Overall this is a pleasingly original, high quality hour of music and drama – not quite a concert, not quite musical theatre and not quite an illustrated talk. Maybe Burnside has invented a new performance art form?


Hastings Philharmonic

St Mary in the Castle, Saturday 4 November 2017

The first choral concert of the season from Hastings Philharmonic brought together an eclectic programme which proved to be both well balanced and finely honed.

Just to prove that Marcio da Silva is not totally indispensable to the ensemble, the string orchestra played Mozart’s Serenata Notturna K239 without him at the podium, which is certainly authentic for the period. Leader Angela Jung guided them with ease from the first desk and maintained a brisk tempi throughout and a continuing sense of warmth and affection for the score. The solo work was exemplary and even off-stage fireworks failed to crash the musical line.

Britten’s Cantata Misericordium dates from soon after the War Requiem and uses similar, if cut-down, forces, with the tenor and baritone soloists balancing the weight of the chorus. Set in Latin, it was good to find we had a complete translation and were thus able to follow the sensitivity of the setting. A non-conformist approach to the parable of the Good Samaritan, it stresses the humanitarian rather than spiritual aspects of the story, though it is difficult to ignore the obvious modern, and overtly spiritual, aspects of the whole piece. The choir had obviously wrestled with the setting, which is not an easy sing, but managed to do justice to the piece and produce a number of moments of real splendour.

After the interval the orchestra excelled themselves in a ravishing performance of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings.  Though I have known the work for more than half a century I can’t recall the slow movement more beautifully played. The beauty of Elgar’s line encloses hints of the transience of life – never edging over into the melancholy which came so often in his later works, but hinted here nevertheless.

Two psalm settings by Holst seemed almost prosaic by comparison though that would be an insult to fine pieces, finely performed. The choir were far more comfortable here and ready for the leap into Schubert’s Mass in G D167, which he wrote at the tender age of 18. Though a brief work it is full of radiant music, allowing the soloists to shine again as they had earlier. Soprano Helen May filled the building with richly glowing tone, the top of the voice thrilling as it floated above the choir.

In the Britten, tenor Kieran White and baritone, Jolyon Loy, had taken the parts written for Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with great sensitivity and beauty of line. The final moments of sleep now seem to reflect the War Requiem and there is a moving outcry from the wounded Jew as the musical line mirrors Gerontius. In the Schubert they were equally adroit and moving.

Throughout, Marcio da Silva brought what we have come to expect of him – precision and passion. We are lucky to have him with us.

The next Hastings Philharmonic concert is on Saturday 2 December at Christ Church St Leonards when the Baroque choir will sing Stabat Mater’s by Pergolesi and Scarlatti.