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Tenor Colin Ainsworth and pianist Stephen Ralls today presented three song cycles written for them by Derek Holman. The first, The Death of Orpheus (2004) sets two translations of Ovid by Arthur Golding; on the subject of Orpheus in the underworld sandwiching Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII. The parts form an interesting contrast. In the Ovid, Golding chose to write in rhyming iambic heptameters but Holman’s setting completely ignores that, breaking and reshaping the lines very freely. The piano line too is spare and more a commentary on the vocal line than a support. In contrast the Shakespeare is set much more “faithfully”; piano and vocal line both reflecting more closely the metre of the verse. Holman also rarely repeats a phrase of the text) it happens maybe five times in the eleven songs in today’s programme) which puts quite a burden on the listener given the allusive complexity of Ovid/Golding’s verse.
The second cycle was the 2004 work A Lasting Spring, composed as a memorial to Nicholas Goldschmidt. This sets Shakespeare’s Lament from Cymbeline and his Orpheus with his lute from Henry VIII plus Robert Herrick’s To Music. All these texts are elegiac and are given settings of appropriate mood. The musical lines again tend to cleave fairly close to the natural rhythm of the words here. It’s direct, honest music.
The final set was a 2012 work A Play of Passion which Colin explained was written for him at a difficult point in his life (unspecified!). This mixes 16th and 20th century texts that all, in varied ways, dwell on the ephemeral nature of one human life in the context of renewal on a broader scale. The musical mood varies widely from the wistful setting of Raleigh’s A Play of Passion through the much more aggressive treatment of Joyce’s I hear an army and the more quietly sombre mood for Daniel’s Care-charmer Sleepe. The last two songs are settings of part of Lawrence Binyon’s 1942 poem The Burning of the Leaves and Sassoon’s 1920 Everyone Sang. These are very complex works. Even a single line can be full of ambiguous import. Take the last few words set in each case; “Nothing is certain, only the certain spring” and “and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done”. Here Holman uses a lot of musical repetition and even some repeating of the words, I think to open up some space for the audience to grasp the text. It’s certainly effective.
It’s a strange thing listening to really complex verse set to music. Even when that music is as relatively easy to get to grips with as Holman’s (I’m not suggesting his music is simple or trivial. It most certainly is not but its roots in the Anglican choral and English art song traditions make it more accessible than some of his contemporaries) at first hearing it’s hard to focus on everything at once and yet the texts are so dense it’s blink and you’ve missed it. I need to listen to these pieces again (and then several more times). Fortunately we are told there will be a CD.
I have little to say about the performances. A fine singer and terrific pianist played music written for them and that obviously means the world to them. What is left to say?
This must rate as one of the most imaginative and rewarding concerts that I have attended in the COC’s free lunchtime concert series. I’m a bit surprised the place wasn’t packed. It should have been.