Alan Cooper reviews: Turning The Elements

Turning The Elements
Joanna Nicholson: Clarinet
Frances Cooper: Soprano

Migvie Church, Tarland
Sunday, 25 October 2015

The outdoor venue for Phillip Cooke’s work that launched this year’s Sound Festival made the music really special. Little Migvie Church did the same for Sunday’s song recital with Frances Cooper soprano and ace clarinettist Joanna Nicholson. There is something strangely magical about Migvie, from the welcoming row of little lanterns leading you up to the venue with its rather time-worn looking doors. When those doors are opened, the dowdy looking exterior of the building reveals a sparkling white interior, its walls decorated with inspiring designs or inscriptions. There is something almost like Dr Who’s Tardis about Migvie. The inside seems a lot bigger than the outside. Outside you are in the middle of nowhere, in a field along a muddy path amid lonely countryside. Inside you find yourself in a sophisticated venue that could easily be somewhere in a city.

Today’s recital was made even more powerfully atmospheric by the dimming of the lights and the projection behind the performers of slide pictures that amplified the subjects of much of the music. The recital opened with Three Vocalises by Vaughan Williams. The opening Prelude with the clarinet sometimes mirroring the voice or else providing accompaniment was an attractive interweaving of soprano and clarinet, the wordless singing voice behaving really like a second instrument. The back projection of wind-blown bog cotton seemed to reflect the sinuous movements of voice and clarinet.

A picture of wild marguerites matched the cheeriness of the following Scherzo while bearded barley in the sun went well with the smoothness of the final movement. As Frances Cooper said, much of the vocal music of Vaughan Williams was inspired by English folk melodies and this was a recurring theme throughout the concert.

Frances Cooper gave us a lovely unaccompanied rendition of Turn Ye to Me - not quite a pure folksong since we know the writer of the words, John Wilson (1785 – 1854) who wrote under the pen name of Christopher North. Nevertheless the song has been performed regularly by folksingers and Frances Cooper’s performance was an object lesson in vocal simplicity and purity. The composers of the new commissions we were about to hear put this song at the heart of their work.

The first was Rebecca Rowe who had set words by both Jane McKie and Stewart Sanderson with a wordless vocalise in the middle. In the first song, Beautiful Feathered Tyrant, Frances Cooper assumed the voice of a bird while Joanna Nicholson’s clarinet seemed to illustrate the antics of the bird. The pictures of ice that accompanied the central vocalise seemed apposite while in the final song, Past Sula Sgeir, Rebecca Rowe’s setting of poetry by Stewart Sanderson, the full range of the clarinet was exploited as Joanna Nicholson decorated Frances Cooper’s smoothly sustained vocal line with a marvellously lithe and limber clarinet part.

Three songs by Gordon Jacob are based on three Elizabethan Madrigals the first two from the books of Dowland, the third by Thomas Morley. Of All the Birds that I do Know had a busy clarinet part and a cheery vocal line with a sparrow shown on screen. A little waterfall illustrated Flow My Tears and the contrastingly cheerful final song asked the question Ho, Who Comes Here? Before giving us the answer, “tis the Morris dance a-coming”

Stuart Murray-Mitchell’s three songs in a sense matched the structure of Rebecca Rowe’s offering placing the poets the other way round and enclosing a central clarinet solo. The first song with text by Stewart Sanderson had a clarinet opening that was almost a cadenza and in the central solo, a firmly sustained melody was magically underpinned by little trills.
Jane McKie must be into birds because in the final song her title was Contrary Bird. Clarinet and voice mirrored one another splendidly in this song.

The three pieces that closed the concert followed Stuart Murray-Mitchell’s format nicely – two arrangements of poems by Robert Burns enclosing a clarinet solo, Winter, by John Maxwell Geddes.

I can personally concur with the sentiments of the first song, Up in the Morning’s no’ for me – being retired I live by that idea. The clarinet trills and shakes perhaps represented the shivers of Winter in John Maxwell Geddes’s piece and O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast often sung as a duet worked splendidly in today’s version for voice and clarinet. After the performance the lights went up but the spell cast by our two splendid performers and the Migvie venue lingered on. It still does actually!

comments powered by Disqus