sound festival 2019 review: Written in Fire

Rakhi Singh: First Violin
Simmy Singh: Second Violin
Ruth Gibson: Viola
Ashok Klouda: Cello

Vessels (Sebastian Gainsborough): Electronics

Intimate Letters (Listy důvĕrné), a celebrated string quartet by Leoš Janáček, is a favourite work of the Singh Quartet, so much so that they are able to play the entire work from memory. It was just such a performance that provided the first half of their concert for sound in the Lemon Tree on Friday evening. The second half of the concert was devoted to a new work, a co-composition by first violinist Rakhi Singh along with pioneering electronic musician Vessel, the performance name of Sebastian Gainsborough.

For their performance of Intimate Letters, the Singh Quartet came to the front of the upstairs studio in the Lemon Tree dimly lit by rose tinted lights. This gave the romantic atmosphere of the music a special boost. Before the performance, Rakhi Singh told us about the emotional background of the work, the composer’s fondness or even obsession with a much younger lady, Kamila Stosslova. Rakhi stressed the sense of obsession and intensity expressed throughout the work.

The performance from memory by the Singh Quartet certainly projected these ideas, and then some. I have attended another couple of performances that included this quartet, but Friday’s by the Singh Quartet was by a long way the most exhilarating and memorable I have heard. There were wonderful fiery moments contrasting with seductively Hollywood-smooth passages. Along with fire and romance, there were marvellous sunshiny dance-like passages and even one which took us to the world of café music. The variety of the music was paramount. All the performers in this piece were absolutely top-notch, however what really grabbed my imagination was the music for viola. This was partly the result of Janáček’s scoring, after all, I read that the viola represents the beloved Kamila. However a considerable part of the viola’s stunning impact was surely due to the fabulous playing of Ruth Gibson.

The only problem with this amazing performance was that it was going to be very difficult to match it with the following work, Written in Fire. Nevertheless, it certainly had fascinating qualities. The miked-up quartet players sounded like a full orchestra when backed up by the electronics. There was a definite sense of post-minimalism in this new piece. The electronics created special rhythmic backing to the music, some of it sounding like modern popular music with its throbbing rhythmic background. Behind the performers was a series of visuals designed by Pedro Maia. Many of these were close ups of various body parts which became more and more abstract. I was occasionally reminded of the more gory moments from Silent Witness, most likely not what was intended. Overall, I found the visuals a distraction from the music. Nonetheless, for the Singh Quartet’s performance of the Janáček quartet, this concert will surely be remembered as one of the very best at this year’s soundfestival.

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