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‘Songs, Cycles, and Scenas’: Claire Booth (soprano), Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano), Janey Miller (oboe), Joby Burgess (percussion). Purcell Room, London, 1.3.2011 (MB)


Cornelius Cardew – Solo with Accompaniment

Howard Skempton – Gloss (world première)

Jonathan Harvey – Ah! Sun-flower

Colin Matthews – Out in the dark, for soprano and piano

John Woolrich – Stendhal’s Observation, for mezzo-soprano and piano

Philip Cashian – The Songs few hear (world première)

Rolf Hind – Fire in the Head (world première)

George Nicholson – selection from Bagatelles (6,3,4,2), for oboe and percussion (London première)

Alun Hoddinott – A Contemplation upon Flowers (Myfanwy Piper) (London première)


I wanted to like this concert; I had expected to like this concert. Reader, you are doubtless expecting a ‘but’, and verily, there are several. To start with, the programme really did not hang together. I had assumed that there would be at least one work in which all of the players came together. What instead we had was alternating groups of pieces for oboe and percussion on the one hand, and soprano and piano on the other, with a small part for percussion added by the performers for the final piece (no oboe). Nor did there seem to be any connection between the music played by the two groups: that for oboe and percussion was ‘experimental’, and frankly of dubious quality, however well performed, whilst that for soprano and piano was – surprisingly, given the adventurous tastes of Claire Booth in general – pleasant enough but for the most part somewhat conservative.


I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing Cornelius Cardew’s Solo with Accompaniment. A box, I suppose, has been ticked; I cannot imagine wanting to hear its banalities again. Clearly the concept is the important thing, but an extremely simple solo – played, I assume as requested, with most unpleasing tone by Janey Miller – around which a busier percussion accompaniment weaves itself to no particular end, is not much of a tribute to Stockhausen, as John Tillbury claimed in his memorial lecture on Cardew. As for Howard Skempton’s Gloss, receiving its first performance, minimalistic simplicity would, as usual, appear to be the concept. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like. To my ears, it sounded like a cross between a GCSE project and the beginning of a score for a Channel 4 period drama. Joby Burgess’s performances throughout, however, seemed exemplary; he certainly did everything he could to try to convince one of the music’s worth. Fire in the Head, by Rolf Hind, also received its first performance. I have only previously heard Hind as an extremely fine pianist – most recently in Lachenmann’s Ausklang – and it would seem that I am far more attuned to his work in that guise. Based, we were told, upon Buddhist ideas, notably that one must live ‘for the moment’ and that the Buddha would at some point dance with the Devil, it was certainly eventful. Burgess and Miller gave it their all, including shouts of what I assume were Buddhist or mock-Buddhist chant. Pouring water from a plastic jug into a bowl was one of Burgess’s manifold tasks. Again, it seemed a bit like a school – perhaps an art school – project, but doubtless I was missing the point. George Nicholson’s Bagatelles went on for a while and ended, though they seemed more substantially composed; I think I had become rather fed up by that point, so ought to hear them again. At least they permitted us to hear the oboe d’amore in addition to English horn.


Of the songs, John Woolrich’s Stendhal’s Observation emerged at the time as a typically finely wrought example of the composer’s art - though I admit that I cannot clearly recall how or why even - in what seemed to me the strongest piece on the programme. (That, I am sure, however, and without irony, is my loss.) Jonathan Harvey’s Ah! Sun-flower set words by Blake clearly, without leaving any lasting impression, whilst Colin Matthews’s Out in the dark seemed merely neo-Romantic, but at least short. Philip Cashian’s The Songs few hear from time to time seemed to evoke Britten in its vocabulary; it was idiomatically written for voice and piano, and the musicians concerned would seem to have given a good account. I am not sure that it was done any great favours by the context of its programming. Claire Booth’s clarity and quality of voice were exemplary throughout, likewise Andrew Matthews-Owen’s skilled navigation of the varied – sometimes, not so varied – piano parts. Matthews-Owen perhaps particularly came into his own in the piano reduction of Alun Hoddinott’s A Contemplation upon Flowers. Again, Britten came to mind more than once, but Hoddinott’s language here equally often sounded knowingly post-Impressionist, or at least French-influenced. There are worse influences than Britten and Debussy, of course, and the almost Romantic climaxes, surely and expressively conveyed by both musicians, betokened at least a synthesis that was Hoddinott’s own. Burgess added atmospheric tolling bells in the first and third of the cycle’s three songs.


Mark Berry


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