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25 Nov 2018

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra 'unwrap' Time at Kings Place

In this contribution to Kings Place’s 2018 Time Unwrapped series, ‘co-curators’ composer Nico Muhly and countertenor Iestyn Davies explored the relationship between time past and time present, and between stillness and motion.

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iestyn Davies (countertenor)

Photo credit: Chris Sorensen

 

Muhly’s Old Bones adopts an idiosyncratic angle from which to reflect upon ‘Time’. Heard here in a new arrangement, conducted by the composer, for harp, celeste and string quartet, the text (by Richard Buckley, Philippa Langley and Guto’r Glyn) narrates the discovery and exhumation of the bones of Richard III in a car park in Leicester in 2012. A fragmented texture suffused with the cello’s pizzicato energy conjures the excitement of detection and revelation - “They dug in that spot, and the leg bones were revealed”. Davies’ composure and narrative focus drew us into the significance of the unearthing, and we soon became as compelled as the onlookers whose transfixed gaze is suggested by the harp’s oscillations and the repetitions of the viola’s melody. The fusion of past and present is embodied in the text itself, with third-person narration from the perspective of the present juxtaposed with first-person observation and reflection from the medieval past. The participant’s resonant announcement, “King Henry won the day”, was celebrated by the assertive lower strings, while the strange, disturbing feelings experienced by the modern-day ‘archaeologist’, “I am standing on Richard’s grave”, were evoked by churning, twisting harmonies. Slowly rising from a sustained pianissimo pause, the dead King himself seemed to reclaim life, “Now you can understand me”, “I’m ready”, the clarity and strength of Davies’ vocal exclamation suggesting the ghostly compulsion to speak from the grave as well as the madness of the modern-day observer: “Everyone else was looking at old bones, and I was seeing the man.”

Muhly’s Clear Music for cello, harp and celeste also unites present and past, being thematically based upon an early choral work by John Taverner, Mater Christi Sanctissima. Unfolding an eloquent opening melody, cellist Sébastien van Kuikj fell from a beautiful high-lying opening to richer, heavier grains of the lower strings, while the entry of the harp and celeste conjured the luminous spaciousness of Renaissance choral polyphony and the towering cathedrals that such music evokes in musical form. Motion for clarinet, piano and quartet similarly builds upon a Renaissance fragment, from Orlando Gibbons’ verse anthem See, see the Word, and the instrumentalists ranged with a rapidly accelerating sweep through vivid terrain.

Interweaved between old and new were instrumental works from the late-nineteenth century. Pianist John Reid opening the concert with the quietly breathing pulse of Satie’s Third Gymnopédie while harpist Sally Price conjured first heavenly light and air, and then ripples of colour, in Debussy’s Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane. Against the sensitive nuance of the piano accompaniment and the low silkiness of Hélèle Clément’s viola obbligato, Davies worked hard to communicate the yearning and fulfilment of Brahms’ Gestillte Sehnsucht (Assuaged Longing) but while there was firm resoluteness and a relaxed power the countertenor struggled to convey the Straussian passion which infuses this lied.

Two works by Thomas Adès made the strongest impression. Written when the composer was just eighteen-years-old, The Lover in Winter (1989) is a delicate miniature song-cycle whose Latin texts speak of the warmth with which love can assuage and transform the cold, bleak season. At the start, the strangeness and menace of this winter world is evoked by the unsettling intervals of the voice’s descending scale, ‘Iam nocetteneris’ (Now the cold harms what is tender). Here, Davies’ pure sound was a shining ray of wintry sunlight, while in the third song, ‘Modo figescit quidquid est’ (Soon all that exists grows cold), a beautiful, blanched tone captured the frozen immobility of the landscape, cracking icicles sparkling in the piano accompaniment. The fire of the lover’s kisses surged through the wavering vocal line at the opening of the final song, ‘Nutritur ignis osculo’, while the fragmentation of text and melody at the close conveyed a quasi-transcendental force: ‘nec est in toto seculo plus numinis’ (there is not in all our age more of the holy power).

Adès’ mysterious Four Quarters (2010) was brilliantly played by the four string players from the Aurora Orchestra. At the start, ‘Nightfalls’ opened up vast vistas of time and space, as high and low lines wove an ethereal web. The rhythmic displacements of ‘Morning Dew’ were skilfully controlled, accents pointedly placed, while in ‘Days’ the instrumental voices piled upon one another creating thick textures and tones of lovely colour, underpinned by the shapely cello phrases. The wildest wanderings conjured by the fiendishly complex 25/16 time-signature of ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’, representing time spilling beyond the clock, did not ruffle the composure established by Alex Wood’s serene harmonics at the start, against the viola’s brushed chords and the cello’s gentle pizzicato.

Adès’ cycle evokes a tradition of English song stretching back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the recital fittingly closed with Muhly’s arrangement - for an ensemble comprising all the present musicians - of John Dowland’s beautiful lute song, Time Stands Still. Now, Davies’ voice seemed somehow ‘released’, more freely expressive than previously, hovering above and then nestling gently into the muted strings’ cadential consonances. Viola and cello echoed and intertwined with the vocal phrases, while the contrasting harp colour seemed to embody the innate rhetoric and inner debate of the lyrics: ‘If bloudlesse envie say, dutie hath no desert,/Dutie replies that envie knows her selfe his faithfull heart.’

The text of Dowland’s song, which was published in 1603, is laden with emblems which suggest that the lyrics are a panegyric to Queen Elizabeth I - fittingly so, for, looking ahead, if at Kings Place Time will shortly come to a point of rest and silence, then Venus is soon to be awoken and given voice.

Claire Seymour

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sally Pryce (harp), John Reid (piano/celeste), Principal Players of Aurora Orchestra

Satie - Gymnopédie No.3; Thomas Adès -The Lover in Winter; Nico Muhly - Clear Music; Debussy -Danse Sacrée et Danse profane; Brahms - Gestillte Sehnsucht; Muhly - Old Bones (world premiere of new arrangement), Motion; Adès - The Four Quarters; Dowland (arr. Muhly) Time Stands Still

Kings Place, London; Friday 23th November 2018.

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