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Hebrides Ensemble, Jane Irwin


By Pat Napier - Posted on 14 August 2007

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Venue: 
Queen's Hall
Performers: 
Jane Irwin (mezzo soprano); Hebrides Ensemble, William Conway (Artistic Director)

The first morning concert of the International Festival's 2007 Bank of Scotland Series got off to a sparkling start with an absolutely gorgeous recital.

The ever-popular mezzo Jane Irwin, sleek and svelte in an elegant back gown, joined the first combination of our own innovative, exciting Hebrides Ensemble, also black-clad - possibly a little sombre, perhaps to match the thrust of the programme. Not at all, as it turned out, for the whole force of the recital was entirely on the music and the words, with absolutely nothing to distract from that.

Jane Irwin
© Andres Landino

Throughout, Jane Irwin's rich, sensitive voice was a perfect match for the deeply meditative, philosophical and lyrical explorations of life and death. An additional thread running through everything was the part folk music played, often being the perfect vehicle for the mood ranges invoked in different worlds and cultures.

Musically, it all concentrated on roughly Central European countries: on Mahler's Austria, Janacek's Czechoslovakia/Moravia, then swooping down to the Balkan peninsula, ending in Italy with Berio, who actually tied things up in a sparkling tissue of songs using a ribbon stretching from the USA in the West to Azerbaijan in the East.

The Janacek and the Berio framed two works with strong Edinburgh-based composer input. The Mahler was arranged for a chamber group by Edward Harper and Nigel Osborne, Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh composed the Balkan dances and laments. Both pieces were commissioned by the Hebrides Ensemble.

Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the death of children), five songs he himself chose from more than 400 Rückert poems, was completed in 1904 during a creative blaze which included the Sieben Lieder aus letzer Zeit (Seven songs of latter days, also Rückert settings), and the writing of his Sixth Symphony. Perhaps these two sets of Rückert songs should really be heard together to appreciate Mahler's full musical range since both sets' first three songs were also composed at the same time in 1901.

Edward Harper's challenge was to score Mahler's contrasting spare, almost minimalist linear texture and rich, subtle orchestration to create a version for a chamber group who would, using different instruments, reproduce these rich harmonies, colours and contrasts that would interact with the subtle vocal lines. His choice of instruments would be crucial and ultimately rested with the three wind instruments he was allowed to use. He chose the French horn (essential to the piece), the flute and clarinet augmented by the piccolo and the bass clarinet. The piano was the versatile link tying everything together.

The end result - which turned out to be a triumph - showed Harper drawing on his own sound world to invoke Mahler's. Jane Irwin magnificently set the emotional mood of actual, yet philosophical, remembrance of all the family deaths Mahler has remembered from his own childood, for his child Maria Anna's death was still in his future. This mood was matched in every way by the Hebrides Ensemble.

The performance was so compelling that it created an absorbing performance in its own right. When the last notes died away time was suspended in that same magical silence that seems to last forever before being broken by applause. Several people were heard to admit to being almost in tears at the end.

Nigel Osborne's Balkan dances and laments explored an entirely different sound world. He used tempo, pitch and rhythms to contrast moods and effects. His many years of musical outreach activities in the Balkans, working with people of different cultures, both children and adults who have been traumatised by war, has given him a deep insight into music's power to heal as well as to hear at first hand the rich folk traditions that lie along the 'fault line' of Christianity and Islam.

So here was this solid foundation of folk traditions, reflecting the Middle Eastern influences and distinctive sound. Natural harmonies emerged which said deep things to all our psyches. The whole range of emotions, from joy, to dance, langour, sadness and grieving as well as an Arabic acceptance of what life gives "whether the sky is bright or dark" was offered. The audience embraced it all enthusiastically and took these songs to their hearts, showing loud appreciation of the fifteen minutes that seemed to say so much more than the time span would suggest. Another triumph.

Janacek's Mladi, the only instrumental piece began the concert and introduced the audience to the wind section of the Hebrides Ensemble. Janacek, at almost 70 years old, set down his loving, tender memories of his homeland. At that time, modern music was exploring the possibilities of wind instruments, so he chose to tell his story this way. As always, folk music underpinned many of his themes and the French horn, piccolo and glockenspiel featured to great effect. Janacek's remembrances of the golden youth of his time was lovingly set before us.

The concert closed with a delightful set of Folk Songs from the ever-surprising Luciano Berio, reaching the height of his powers at almost 40 years of age. Written for his soon-to-be ex-wife Cathy Berberian, the songs were a bouquet of flowers, in several languages, from as far afield as the USA (Black is the colour) to an Azerbaijani love song. Each was a little gem celebrating the wonders of nature, the qualities of the Ideal Woman, the gorgeouseness of two Songs of the Auvergne, to the Mottetu de tristura (Song of sadness) where percussion was used so sensitively that the sound of tears dropping was clearly heard. This rarely heard, always surprising set of songs were just a pure joy.

This superb concert over-ran its scheduled time by a large margin. But nobody complained. The only regret was that no time remained for an encore.

Music Janacek: Mladi; Mahler: Kindertotenlieder; Osborne: Balkan dances and laments; Berio: Folksongs (1964)
© Pat Napier. 11 August 2007. First published on www.Edinburghguide.com