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Spitalfields Music Summer Festival 2011

Byrd's Great Service

Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreech


Michel van der Aa & Mahler's Fourth

Michel van der Aa Spaces of Blank
Mahler's Fourth Symphony arr. Stein

BBCSO/Lawrence Renes
Sarah-Jane Brandon soprano
Stephanie Marshall mezzo-soprano

Handel - Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

Sophie Bevan soprano
Marina de Liso mezzo soprano
João Fernandes bass

The English Concert/Harry Bicket director/harpsichord

Christ Church, Spitalfields June 2011

The imposing and beautiful Hawksmoor church which is at the centre of the Spitalfields Festivals is problematic for some musics, though sympathetic for choirs.

A rare opportunity to hear Byrd's Great Service was rewarding and it attracted a full house to this large church, thereby confining us to the aisle seats, with restricted view but fine for sound. This rarity (in English for the Protestant church) is an imposing, major work, given with Office Hymns in Latin and supported by several motets by British composers.

Those of Jonathan Dove stood head and shoulders above the others; Dove is a composer who rises to every occasion and never lets you down. Basically tonal, but never too predictable, with marvellous responses to the words of a Shakespeare Sonnet and to another by a Shakespeare contemporary (Samuel Daniel's 64th Sonnet).

Check out Byrd & Dove on BBCR3 iPlayer; the spoken introductions, including by McCreech, are better than we had in the skimpy programme notes; hurry, only on line for 7 days !


The chamber version of Mahler IV (arr Stein) is far more problematic than the Schoenberg/Rieh reduction of Das Lied von der Erde which was totally persuasive at Cadogan Hall recently.

You can get a fair impression of the symphony reduction on YouTube, done by what appears to be a competent student orchestra; at Spitalfields it was no better from the reduced BBC Symphony Orchestra. The winds were invisible behind the string quintet, and from "good" seats in the front block the sound swam around in distressing confusion. There was nothing of childhood delight in Sarah-Jane Brandon' s way with the final song "Das himmlische Leben", a child's vision of Heaven.

Search under "Aa" (!!) and you will find a lot of enthusiasm for Michel van... And for this 20-mins setting of Emily Dickinson etc for mezzo, symphony orchestra and electronics - at Christchurch Spaces of Blank made a generally busy impression, but the contribution of electronics seemed minimal there; and the settings of the poems gave little expressive opportunities for Stephanie Marshall to make an impact.*

(It has been recorded on van der Aa's own label Disquiet DQM01 with Christianne Stotjin; hearing which has not changed by feelings about it. I will seek a specialist review of his two CD releases, with another due next month).

Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is a product of his early years in Italy, not to be confused with the pastorale Acis and Galatea, written a decade later, and important to us for a performance at Eltham which catapulted my small son as Damon into the top professional world of concerts and recordings. That is the version in which the giant Polyphemus is a buffo character, with his ever popular O ruddier than the cherry.

The Italian version focuses on resistance to this determined rapist. An oddity is that Acis is a soprano part and Galatea a contralto, taken at Spitalfields by the delectable Marina de Liso (a true contralto rather than mezzo as billed; likewise with Sarah Mingardo on the Haïm recording, Virgin).

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo was new to us, and turned out to be the high spot of our samplings of this year's Festival. The performance was fine but it was the music and especially its orchestration which amazed and held our attention throughout; it was given without an interval. Bicket conducted, with perfunctory fingering of a near inaudible harpsichord sitting above a more satisfactory chamber organ with which he accompanied some items. The instrumental solos were ravishing. Sophy Bevan reached peak form for Acis's dying aria My soul pours out with my blood; João Fernandes impressed with bass villany in a part which took him down to the depths and up into falsetto range, and Marina de Liso was impeccable throughout, as good as Mingardo on the Haïm recording - Music Web recommends however the older Harmonia Mundi recording with Emma Kirkby.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Spaces of Blank has been recorded on van der Aa's own label Disquiet DQM01 with Christianne Stotjin; hearing which has not changed by feelings about it. I will seek a specialist review of his two CD releases, with another due next month. PGW