The ensemble Psappha are indefatigable champions of new music and, true to form, the programme they brought to the Cheltenham festival consisted entirely of premieres. Three of the four works were being heard for the first time anywhere: commissions shared between the festival and Wild Plum Arts, which was created to support new music and its performance. One of Wild Plum’s founders, the tenor Christopher Gillett, acted as compere for the concert.
The most substantial work was Conor Mitchell’s Look Both Ways, setting extracts from the exchanges of letters between Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears from the 1940s, when the tenor was often on tour while Britten stayed in Aldeburgh composing. With tenor and baritone soloists – the excellent Ed Lyon and James Cleverton – supported by a piano trio, Mitchell’s touching, clever song cycle is careful to underline the difference in tone between the two correspondents.
Pears’ words are assigned to the tenor, often with just the piano as accompaniment, and set far more lyrically than Britten’s more guarded, less effusive responses, which the baritone delivers more prosaically, supported by the strings. Pears’ music is threaded through with fleeting allusions to some of the composers in his repertory – Schubert, Schumann, Cole Porter – emphasising perhaps how more worldly he was than his partner. His words also reveal their fears as a gay couple in that era. “I am filled with terrors,” he admits at one point. “Let us live”.
On a much smaller scale, Claire Victoria Roberts’ Like Ships Adrift adopted a similar approach to the written exchanges between Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. A sequence of tiny instrumental pieces was interspersed with spoken fragments delivered by Gillett, often striking enough to wish that it had all been a bit more substantial.
The concert had begun with Jeffrey Mumford’s purely instrumental Undiluted Days: five short, rather dour movements receiving their UK premiere more than 20 years after they were composed. But it ended on a much more upbeat note with Bobbie-Jane Gardner’s arrangement of Odetta’s 1970 anthem Hit or Miss, with Lyon and Cleverton managing to get the Cheltenham audience at least clapping if not quite singing along.
July 18, 2022 at 02:46AM Andrew Clements