Seeing is Believing: Purcell, Britten, Muhly, Gibbons, Mahler, Schubert

Aurora Orchestra

King's Place, 9 May 2011 4 stars

muhly King's Place have in their cultivation of the strand of the series or the mini-series – a run of concerts organised around a central theme and/or a central cast of performers or composers – rather cornered the London market in boutique music programming.

Whether it be its 'curated weeks' or its regular themed nights (such as the regularly-intriguing contemporary music event Out Hear), the venue has shown a keen willingness to explore on a sustained basis somewhat obscure musical styles and musicians, allowing facets of them to be exposed in a way that they might not be otherwise.

Such an exposition has been present in this week's series, entitled Seeing is Believing after the work at its centre, which focuses on the American composer Nico Muhly, friend of the pop world as much as he is darling of the classical. The second concert in the series takes place tonight and is organised around Muhly's American influences, amongst other things.

The first concert, which I attended, took as its starting point Muhly’s admiration (oft-proclaimed on his sardonically charming blog) for English composers – primarily Renaissance and early-Baroque choral composers, on the evidence of Purcell and Gibbon’s presence here, and Byrd's in the second concert – though Britten also gets a look in, in the shape in this case of his rather magnificent String Quartet No. 2, and his arrangement of Purcell's Chacony.

By placing amongst these composers both a Muhly work that is explicitly under their influence, Motion, and also an arrangement by the composer of one of their works (Gibbons' anthem 'This is the Record of John'), the audience were allowed to witness and appreciate for themselves the correspondences of organisational logic, of wit, and of sheer musicality, that run from the older composers to Muhly. Chamber works from Mahler and Schubert rounded out what in sum felt like an emotionally and dramatically vivid and well-conceived programme.

Our performers were the Aurora Orchestra, long term collaborators of Muhly and original commissioners of his electric violin concerto which gives this series its title. The group showed a fulsomeness of emotion in Britten's arrangement of Purcell's Chacony that was welcome, even if some of the contrasts of intensity between variations could have been drawn with a little less sharpness and the climaxes telescoped a little less, but the group's restrained use of vibrato and its clear sense of ensemble purpose more than made up for these indiscretions.

The fulsomeness on display in this opening continued throughout the rest of the concert, but it resolved fully into an unrestrained grandeur only in the last work, the altogether crepuscular world of Britten's second string quartet. This is a piece in which economy of means meets opacity of voice, particularly in its daunting variation finale, and where a gloaming modernism smears Britten's aspiring classicism at every turn. Aurora’s musicians gave themselves fully to the programme, effectively bringing out both the emotional obscurity and the structural dexterity of Britten's score.

They were a little more perfunctory in Schubert's String Trio D471, a short one movement piece that struggles hard to feel like anything other than a charming student essay, but the musicians showed great emotional weight in Mahler's similarly juvenile Piano Quartet Movement in A minor, producing gleaming ensemble in the first subject group (which was only let down by the crowding out of the piano at various points later on), darkening tone colours throughout the movement, real tension in the latter stages of the development, and a series of remarkable cadenzas, particularly from a charged Oliver Coates on cello, which elevated the performance to great heights of intensity.

Apart from the passion of the Britten the highlight of the evening was to be found in the two Muhly pieces, the first a deft arrangement for piano quintet and clarinet of the aforementioned Gibbons' anthem, and the second, Motion, a piece for the same line up which is also under Gibbon's aegis, this time focussing, in a looser sense, on his anthem 'See, see the Word is incarnate'.

In the first instance, the arrangement, Muhly adds to Gibbon’s harmonic luxuriance a playfulness and an informality that works very well with the already relaxed antiphonal nature of the piece, creating through this a rather lovely instrumental after-image of the original anthem. In Motion, meanwhile, Muhly chops and screws up bits of the original's melody first of all to form the knotty additive and subtractive gestures that scamper through the ensemble, secondly to shape the somewhat thorny low string conversation of the middle sections, and latterly to fill out a see-sawing group texture that bursts from the centrifuge of the Gibbons melody into an exhilarated conclusion.

The ensemble was on quick-witted form here, technically alert and capable and dramatically thrilling at the same time. In an ensemble such as this the clarinet will always stand out, and as such Peter Sparks' apparent volubility here could perhaps be excused as resulting from the undue prominence the ear accords to his instrument in this company, but in any case it is only a minor complaint. Sparks, and those around him, deserve commendation for what was a particularly engaging performance of a lively and smart (and I don’t mean this at all pejoratively) little work.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Nico Muhly

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