Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Pierrot Lunaire, CWSO, Guards Chapel

Natalie Raybould preparing to perform Pierrot Lunaire
This was an unusual concert to attend by any reckoning - and that's before the weather turned very cold and snowy the night before. Luckily the audience wasn't put off, so there was a quorum of well over a hundred to hear the Countess of Wessex String Orchestra play 'Moonlight in Paris' themed pieces in the Guards Chapel on Birdcage Walk.

Programming is a funny art, and this classically eclectic mix walked the line between inspired and 'just making the criteria'. Vive la difference as intrepid and rather chilly audiences say in the Moonlight in London (although the obligatory National Anthem was indeed obligatory). So, we heard a Lully Overture, a fine, succinct Milhaud Symphony, mellifluous meditations by William Lloyd Webber and Fauré and a (Alto) saxophone concerto by Glazunov, excellently played by a member of the Irish Guards, Andy Braet.

I'm told that the ensemble are trying to programme repertoire outside what is familiar for all sorts of reasons and this is to be commended, as is their conductor Major David Hammond, who is ambitious enough to embrace this idea. It's a peculiar situation watching a uniformed unit, with a formal stage mannerism in keeping with their military basis playing music of a range of affect & temperament (and wit the shameless contemporary touch of reading off iPads with pedal turners).

All this cognitive chicanery was just warm-up for the single work after the interval though. Soprano Natalie Raybould has been performing Schoenberg's expressionist song cycle Pierrot Lunaire for the best part of twenty years and it shows. With its neither fish-nor-fowl vocal styling of Sprechstimme (the words of the poem are spoken but to the pitches and their duration specified in a conventional score) it is important to have a performer who not only knows precisely what they are doing but is also prepared to leave the page behind and grip the audience by its overcoat (put back on after the interval, since you ask).

This was a riveting account of Albert Giraud's poetry (in German, translated by Otto Erich Hartleben) in which the non-German speaker, such as this author, was able not only to hear the text but also understand it. This was also through the carefully detailed rendering of the score by the orchestra (a string quartet with two woodwind and the organist of the Guards Chapel, Martin Ford, on the piano), the most richly realised performance of the evening. Natalie Raybould's technique is something marvellous to watch and hear, pitched speaking of great colour and dynamic, with such a syllabic clarity that it appears her mouth is doing all the acting. My concern that a small group of military students behind me, who had expressed delight in seeing their first double bass earlier in the evening, might have found this a stretch was also put to rest as not a soul left the building until the performers has returned for a genuinely rapturous curtain call.

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