Aspects of conflict in Brio’s “Peace and War” at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s on the Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series

– Brio vocal ensemble

DOUGLAS MEWS – Ghosts, Fire, Water / A Sound Came from Heav’n
MAHLER – Der Tamboursg’sell (from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”)
FINZI – Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun / BOGOSLAVSKY – Dark is the Night
LAMBERT – She is Far from the Land / IRELAND – The Vagabond
PARKER – We’ll Meet Again / KENT – The White Cliffs of Dover
TRAD. – The Minstrel Boy / Danny Boy

BRIO – Janey MacKenzie, Alison Hodge, Jody Orgias, Katherine Hodge, Nick McDougall, Jamie Young, Justin Pearce, Roger Wilson (singers)

with Bruce Greenfield (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 26th March 2014

“Something for everybody who remembers the war” might have been a way of describing much of this presentation, with items ranging in emotion from the downright sentimentality of popular song to the unspeakable horrors of nuclear conflagration. As well, there were pieces with less specific associations, ranging from folk-ballads to finely-wrought meditations on life and death. Rather like everyday life, a bit of a hotch-potch – though in the course of it all we were presented with some startling and memorable moments.

These special moments came for me with the two pieces written by Douglas Mews Snr. (1918-93), his Ghosts, Fire and Water and A Sound Came from Heav’n, both written for unaccompanied vocal ensemble. It was ironic that accompanist Bruce Greenfield, whose playing in support of his individual singers gave such delight throughout the rest of the concert, had no part to play in either of the Mews items.

Roger Wilson led off the first solo bracket with a stirring rendition of one of Mahler’s “death-march” pieces, Der Tamboursg’sell (“The Drummer-Boy”), one of the last of the composer’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn settings. Though the vocal line took the singer to what sounded like the limit of his comfort-zone in places, the intensities thus generated were wholly appropriate to music and text.

One feels certain that Mahler himself would have appreciated the juxtapositioning of this bleak farewell to life with the saccharine sentiments of Ross Parker’s “We’ll meet again” which immediately followed. Though she didn’t manage to out-Vera the legendary “forces’ sweetheart” Vera Lynn, Alison Hodge gave the vocal line enough juice to help bedew the cheeks of the sympathetic listener.

Neither Jodi Orgias nor Justin Pearce had sufficient vocal girth to do full justice to either Gerald Finzi’s Shakespeare setting or Nikita Bogoslavsky’s Dark is the Night, though each singer shaped the phrases and moulded the overall line of their respective songs with feeling and intelligence – one could hear what each was trying to do even if it wasn’t always forthcoming. Janey MacKenzie fearlessly attacked the opening of Frank Lambert’s She is Far from the Land and caught the “soaring” quality of the lines, if in places with more effort than sweet ease – a nicely-floated reprise of the melody after the song’s central climax fell more gratefully on the ear to finish.

As for the second solo grouping of songs, Justin Pearce sounded more at home with John Ireland’s The Vagabond, the higher vocal line enabling some sturdy declamation and fine ringing tones in places from the singer.  Then it was Vera Lynn’s – sorry, Alison Hodge’s turn again, with Walter Kent’s The White Cliffs of Dover – a creditable performance with some heart-warming surges of impulse tugging once again at the heartstrings.

In the same key followed Thomas Moore’s setting of the traditional Irish air “The Minstrel Boy”, here given as much concentration and attention to words by Janey McKenzie as she would any song by Schubert or Duparc, and with Bruce Greenfield adding plenty of “minstrelsy” in the piano part. Another Irish ballad brought to the platform a singer I’d last heard as Frederic, in Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, tenor Jamie Young, who made a great fist of Danny Boy, complete with a hint of a sob to his high-whatever-note-it-was, just before the song’s conclusion.

All of these, however, were merely diversions compared with the two Douglas Mews items presented by the ensemble. Written in 1972, Ghosts, Fire, Water  was inspired by the poetry of British author James Kirkup who had viewed an exhibition in Britain in 1955 entitled “The Hiroshima Panels” by artists Ira Maruki and Toshiko Akamatsu, and whose subsequent verses expressed all the shock, horror and outrage at the effects of that first-ever atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city in 1945.

It was here that the ensemble really, I thought, came into its own – after Roger Wilson had recited the poem by way of introducing the work, Ghosts, Fire and Water gripped us in thrall from beginning to end. Beginning with urgent, troubled repetitions by the group of solo-voiced lines, the music’s agitations and intensities grew into stark, canonic utterances of an almost medieval nature. Bleak unisons strove antiphonally with biting irruptions of energy, the music here like splinters of rain, there like searing shafts of fire, the whole resounding in places with an Edgar Allan Poe-like clangour of angry bells.

As moving were the more elegiac passages later in the work, voices intoning beneath a solo soprano line the words “This is what you have done to us”, and other voices taking up a Latin chant as the words “Love one another” were repeated by different group members speaking in different languages. Certainly not a comfortable listening experience, then, but instead a profound and intensely disturbing one, here most convincingly realized.

In its own, very different way, Douglas Mews’ marvellously antiphonal A Sound Came from Heav’n convinced as equally and strongly. The lines were beautifully-shaped and drawn convincingly into the cadences, while the widely-spaced terraced effect of pedal points beneath the serenely floating women’s voices gave a properly celestial ambience to the Holy Spirit’s invocation. As heartfelt in its way as its companion work, it provided a necessary and more restorative foil to the somewhat harrowing listening experience provided by the latter.

All credit to Brio, whose well-schooled teamwork gave what I thought was the concert’s most important and significant music its due in fine style.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *