As a charity event, this well-attended John Donne Celebration in St Paul's Cathedral, promoted by The Equal Music Company in aid of the Tsunami Disaster, with funds going to Peace Direct, was entirely laudable. Artistically, its composite bill of readings and settings proved less than entirely successful.
No doubt it seemed appropriate to celebrate the great poet in the cathedral beneath which his effigy remains. But St Paul's, with its luxuriant echo, is a notoriously difficult acoustic to focus. Even from a seat beneath the dome, six rows from the stage, it was difficult to disentangle the voices from their acoustic reverberations, plus their projection through loudspeakers.
Then, too, actors work to shorter contracts than musicians, and Mark Rylance, engaged to read two of the Holy Sonnets plus the celebrated Meditation XVII, had to be replaced at the last moment by Michael Malone. Among the other speakers, Imogen Stubbs and Michael Pennington articulated such difficult verses as "The Funeral" and "A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy's Day" skilfully enough.
Publicity claims that Donne's texts were among the most frequently set by his contemporaries were not entirely borne out. True, we heard Emma Kirkby and Carolyn Sampson accompanied by Matthew Wadsworth in a sequence of five lute songs by Dowland, Corkine, Hilton and Anon, plus (twice) Orlando Gibbons's piercingly beautiful anthem "Ah, Dear Heart" sung by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers.
But the remaining items were from the past 100 years: William Harris's serene "Bring Us, O Good Lord" and the more troubled "Thou hast made me" by Sir Lennox Berkeley - plus settings by the theatre composers Nick Price and Peter Readman. Of those, Readman's "The Triple Fool" and Price's "Hymn to God, in my Sickness" displayed thebland diatonic dissonance that seems obligatory in modern Anglican settings.
Meanwhile, the aural jangle created by Readman's "The Message" merely underlined the skill with which the reverberence of large spaces was turned to advantage by old pros such as Harris and Gibbons.
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