Bach and Britten and other balms for Brexit, a Braggart and Bully

The inauguration of the new President of the United States – the last two of the B…s in the title above, in case you hadn’t figured that out – was for me, as for many, an abomination best avoided; I decided not to watch a single second of the ceremony. Nevertheless, I was of course conscious of what was happening over in Washington, and needed something to lift my spirits. Happily, it was forthcoming in the shape of a concert at the Wigmore Hall, for which I’d bought tickets long before the B… in question notched up his somewhat dubious victory.

‘America first,’ I later read he’d said, but my causes for celebration that evening were Canadian, German and, at least nominally, French: the great pianist Angela Hewitt playing JS Bach’s Six French Suites. The perfect way to put aside thoughts of doom and gloom, it afforded an opportunity to see and hear a globally acclaimed musician demonstrating, without the slightest fuss or affectation, total mastery of the material. Right from the start, with Suite no. 1, Hewitt’s seemingly effortless playing was supremely lucid in negotiating Bach’s interwoven melodic lines; at one end of the spectrum the Sarabande was sombre yet spiritually alive, whereas at the other the concluding Gigue genuinely felt like dance music, its shifting beats and unexpectedly extended phrases occasionally sounding like a precursor of jazz. Like so much baroque music, the Suites are largely based on dance forms, and Hewitt’s sure rhythmic sense made that wonderfully clear; everything felt, well, natural. Closing with the superb Suite no. 5, which includes a long, mesmerisingly lovely Sarabande and, before its spirited Gigue, a surprisingly modern-sounding Loure (a dance form, apparently, which Bach used just once elsewhere, in one of the partitas for violin), Hewitt fully deserved the applause she received, and rewarded the audience with an encore of Rameau’s Tambourin from his Suite in E Minor. On such a day, the Bach, especially, was like a balm for the soul. (NB: If you’d like to hear Hewitt’s recital for yourself, and I obviously recommend it, you can listen to it on BBC iPlayer for the next three weeks or so.)

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Angela Hewitt after her performance of Bach’s French Suites

The next day, on Radio 3’s ‘Music Matters’, I heard Tom Service discussing with a range of experts (yes, we should at least listen to them!) the implications for music and musicians of our currently pretty dis-United Kingdom’s departure from the EU. (This, incidentally, followed an equally illuminating interview with John Adams.) All the contributors insisted on the crucial importance of communication, interaction and easy movement between different countries to a healthy musical culture. As if proof were needed, it was provided later that day by another, very different but similarly marvellous concert I attended at King’s Place, given by the English Chamber Orchestra and the remarkable tenor Mark Padmore (pictured at top). It impressed not only for the performances but for the intelligence of the programming by the ECO’s director, the extraordinarily fine violist Lawrence Power.

The concert (entitled ‘Reflections’) began with Padmore singing Dowland’s brief song If my complaints could passions move, before the Orchestra went without a break into Britten’s Lachrymae, a series of variations for viola and strings inspired by that same Dowland song (and, at one point, by his Flow My Tears). Next came some fragments from Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in F, immediately followed by Tippett’s achingly beautiful Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Correlli. And after the interval, a relatively recent work – John Woolrich’s Ulysses Awakes, itself a reimagining of arias from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – was followed by Padmore fronting Britten’s Nocturne for tenor, seven obligato instruments and strings, a highly imaginative and dramatically effective setting of texts by eight English poets dealing in one way or another with sleep (or death) and dreams (or nightmares).

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John Woolrich (left) applauds Lawrence Power (right) for his performance in  Ulysses Awakes

Clearly, Power devised the programme – very successfully – to explore links between pieces written at different times and in different places by different composers; in so doing, he had also, accidentally, demonstrated the validity of the overriding point made in the ‘Music Matters’ programme (also available on BBC iPlayer) about music not being parochial or provincial but international. If they are worth their salt, composers and musicians – and audiences, for that matter – can, should and do learn not only from the past but from other nations, other cultures. But the concert was also, as it happened, appropriate to the day in another way. There was, often, a touch of lamentation to the music, a piercing, poignant sense of loss and grief.

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Mark Padmore and Lawrence Power after Britten’s Nocturne

Yet at the same time there was, throughout, real beauty, born of a passion for music and, surely, for life. Padmore’s singing was, as ever, subtle, powerful and utterly flawless; the English Chamber Orchestra were everything one could wish for (the Tippett piece, which I’ve loved since I first heard it used four decades ago in Peter Hall’s film of Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, was especially well served); and Lawrence Power, whether conducting/ leading, or playing the viola or violin with enormously expressive expertise, was a force to behold. The first time I saw him perform was the premiere of James MacMillan’s Viola Concerto; I was astonished by the energy and eloquence he brought to the music. Having now seen him quite a few times since, playing pieces by a wide range of composers, I’m more impressed than ever. He, Padmore and the ECO deserve my gratitude for distracting me from thoughts of Brexit and that other bothersome beast with such consummate care and skill.

You can find examples of the musical expertise of all mentioned here on YouTube or SoundCloud, along with performances (by different musicians) of Woolwich’s Ulysses AwakesThe Radio 3 programmes mentioned are available for a while on BBC iPlayer.

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