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City of London Festival: Britten, Shostakovich. Louise Winter, John Mark Ainsley, Roger Vignoles, St Lawrence Jewry, Gresham Street, June 30th 2004 (ME)


Ah, the delights of being a dweller in the London suburbs: on the day of this concert, with its 18.00h start, the Tube was closed owing, apparently, to the unwillingness of the authorities to look favourably upon the drivers’ desire for a four day, 32 hour week at £35,000 a year – so, I and what seemed to be the entire population of Epsom, queued…and queued….for scarce taxis, or after the concert, walked all over the City to track one down – I left my house at 15.40 and got to Gresham Street at 17.25, which was not too bad I suppose, but en route home, the journey took almost three hours and was enlivened by a recalcitrant bus driver and a colourful spat or two…. but was it worth it? Well, can a concert lasting just over an hour ever be worth a total journey of almost five? Of course it can, when the singing is as close to perfection, and the setting as glorious, as we experienced on this occasion.


The special joy of a Festival such as this is of course the settings: these wonderful City churches, so rich in history even when, as in this case, they have been restored after war damage, are ideal venues for music which is more usually heard in gloomy halls, and there are further delights to come, so if you missed this concert (and an intrepid band of some 100 did manage to make it) there are four especially tempting programmes under the umbrella of ‘L’invitation au Voyage’ including two which take place at St Olave, on July 5th, and St Botolph on July 6th – first class ensembles, too, including the Nash and Borodin. In ‘The Waste Land,’ Eliot writes of the City as a place ‘Where the walls of Magnus Martyr Hold / Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and Gold’ and the walls of St Lawrence Jewry are almost equally capable of teasing us out of thought: the acoustic is superb, too, with that uniquely spacious feel that only certain churches can give, as well as a warmth which takes the edge off any echo.


The programme was part of a series called ‘Across the Divide’ which explores the links between Britten and Shostakovich, and it offered three ideally contrasting works. ‘Winter Words’ is most remarkable for the way in which it evokes the characteristically Hardyan sense of the dichotomy between man’s tender vulnerability and the indifference of any higher power, and John Mark Ainsley made this conflict clear with singing of exact attention to the poetry and sensitive response to the music. It goes without saying that his phrasing and diction are perfect, and he gives just the right emphasis to those quirky little phrases such as ‘The baby fell a – thinking’ without making them too precious. ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’ was vividly characterized, from the false bravado of the man singing ‘with grimful glee’ to Hardy’s seemingly detached ‘...and the boy with the violin’ which tells a story in just one line. ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ is one of Hardy’s greatest poems, and it called forth from Britten one of the greatest of all song settings: Ainsley’s presentation of the noble, canon – like melody of the narrative, his moving intonation at ‘As soon as I knew / That his spirit was gone’ his sly depiction of the ghastly vicar’s edict, and most of all his management of the contrast between the eerie narrative of the ‘band all in white’ defying the command and singing around the grave anyway, and the much lighter ending, were all masterly: at one point, a glorious shaft of sunlight beamed through the stained glass to illuminate singer, altar and piano – perfection. Worth the journey for an hour’s concert? Worth it for that one song.


Roger Vignoles accompanied superbly: his evocation of the train’s whistle in ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ and his beautifully etched depiction of the little boy’s playing in ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’ gave great pleasure, as did his ever-sympathetic phrasing. That sympathy with his singers was equally evident in the ‘Spanish Songs’ of Shostakovich, here given with plenty of spirit by Louise Winter, a singer far too rarely heard in London. At first hearing, these songs threaten to head for ‘Put the samovar on, Olya, and let’s talk of mournful winters’ territory, with ‘Farewell, Granada’ evoking as much melancholy as a short story by Turgenev, but the Spanish heritage takes over with the second song, with its engaging sentiments about it being too late to learn the names of the stars in exchange for kisses… all wittily performed, and all without any plummy tone. ‘The dark eyed girl’ is perhaps the most individual of these settings, and provided Winter and Vignoles with ample opportunity to revel in its poignant bittersweetness.


They were joined by the tenor for the final work, Britten’s canticle ‘Abraham and Isaac’ written for Pears and Ferrier. Both singers evoked the Voice of God with wonderful, almost hypnotic power, and Winter gave a most sympathetic characterization of the child, so ready to obey yet so fearful. Ainsley’s Abraham is incomparable: authoritative without hectoring, yet ideally tender in passages like ‘ child, thou art so sweet / Thou must be bound, both hands and feet’ this is singing which lives up to Britten’s high ideals for the human voice, and it was accompanied by Vignoles with equal authority and sensitivity.


Melanie Eskenazi

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