Like the sapphire and diamond coronet Prince Albert designed and had made for Queen Victoria, this Britten Sinfonia concert’s Joby Talbot commission was a multifaceted undertaking. The coronet, not surprisingly, was one of Victoria’s most treasured pieces of jewellery, and its recent purchase and subsequent permanent display in, fittingly, the V&A has been the gift of the American philanthropists William and Judith Bollinger. The Bollingers are also co-founders of Independent Opera, a company that has nurtured some fine singers in excellent productions since 2005, and it was Independent Opera that commissioned Talbot. He’s given the new work the uncatchy title of A Sheen of Dew on Flowers (a line from one of the poems he sets) and calls it a cantata, although it could also be described as a choral-song-cycle or even a choral-song-symphony.
Talbot’s output straddles almost any genre you care to mention – pop, film and TV scores (The League of Gentlemen and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), a choral meditation on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela, ballet-scores including those for the Royal Ballet’s full-length Alice and Winter’s Tale, an opera based on a doomed ascent of Everest, an additional planet to add to The Planets, many orchestral pieces, as well as a stint as Classic FM’s composer-in-residence. Talbot does quite nicely, thank you. His music is tonal and prodigally tuneful, he can rustle up character and mood in a flash, his scoring is immensely attractive – and he frequently hits emotional heights.
In A Sheen of Dew on Flowers, Talbot has made a selection of eight women poets – ranging from the Queen of Sheba three thousand years ago, an Inuit woman who became a poet after being hit by a meteorite, a Sufi aristocrat and mystic called Bibi Hayati, medieval holy women Hadewijch of Antwerp and Mechtild of Magdeburg, to the brief, achingly sad laments of the Japanese court poet Izumi Shikibu written more than a thousand years ago, all taken from anthologies compiled by the American poet Jane Hirsfield and all of them very moving as they trace the love between a man and a woman from glorious first encounter through to bereavement, with the obvious parallel of the love between Victoria and Albert and its tragic end. The individual settings live for the moment and relate to and define each other.
Kelley O’Connor and Tobias Greenhalgh made the music very much their own and added a seductive brand of operatic ecstasy and Broadway glamour and directness. O’Connor’s voice is very, very beautiful, with a rich and ravishing lower register and intensely focused expressiveness. She was powerfully matched by Greenhalgh, whose smouldering baritone added no end of dark and poetic passion through some magnificently modulated singing. Talbot’s word-setting is intuitive and speech-based, something that both singers conveyed with admirable clarity, and the many strongly characterised choral contributions from the twenty-five-strong Britten Sinfonia Voices showed off his considerable skill at creating balance and vocal perspectives. A stronger string line would have made a warmer sound, but the percussion’s brilliantly conceived role was a particular pleasure, its ebb and flow imperturbably guided by Natalie Murray Beale. You would need to be made of stone not to respond to the seventh, final section, the settings of Izumi Shikibu’s poems mourning Prince Atsumichi, a void of loss, simply written and devastating, and very much in the Mahler ‘Abschied’ area.
The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony – the composer dedicated it to Queen Victoria and he made a four-hand piano arrangement especially for her and her consort. Once again, you could reasonably think that with this Symphony and the Hebrides Overture Mendelssohn single-handedly defined Europe’s nineteenth-century, fiercely romanticised vision of Scotland. The Britten Sinfonia woodwinds’ volatile intonation immediately suggested the grey-green colours of the landscape, enhanced by the strings’ consistently wiry sound, and Mendelssohn’s translucent orchestration came across with great vigour. I wondered a bit how Beale’s stolid beat related to the thrills of the Finale, with the horns on majestic form, but the result was galvanising all the same.
- Recorded for broadcast on Classic FM on May 3