Review: Classical music: Bartok & Warlock

CLASSICAL MUSIC Bartok & Warlock Purcell Room, London
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The Independent Culture
On 16 March 1922, visiting Britain as a guest of Peter Warlock, Bela Bartok played a selection of his own piano music at University College, Aberystwyth. Recalling this event (and Warlock's visit to Budapest in 1921) as part of a weekend of concerts based around the unveiling on Saturday of a blue plaque at Bartok's London address in Sydney Place, the Warlock Society included the same pieces in their Sunday recital of works by the two composers. There were also performances of Bartok's Contrasts and Warlock's The Curlew, as well as recent versions of other material that gave a touch of novelty.

The versatile new-music ensemble Gemini began the evening at the Purcell Room with the premiere of Romanian folk music collected by Bartok and here arranged by Dave Smith. With great elan, clarinettist Ian Mitchell caught the klezmer intonations and dance-like urges of the first piece, with a backing of violin, viola and cello. The second, still lively though less up-tempo, shifted phrases of melody over repeated chords that persisted with the regularity of minimalism.

From this genuinely folk music it was a short yet telling step to the roster of composed piano pieces played by Richard Egarr. Mindful no doubt of his British audience, Bartok in 1922 chose to balance the asperity of his Allegro barbaro with the more homely lyricism of Evening in the Country, closer to the folksong his audience already knew. Egarr's readings were alert both to detail and to the latent impressionism of the style, with crisp delivery of the left-hand figure of rapid repeated notes in the Bear Dance.

Though Bartok's view of the music of his admiring British colleague has not been recorded, Sunday's audience had the chance to decide for themselves what he might have thought when tenor Daniel Gillingwater stepped in at very short notice to sing Warlock's masterpiece, The Curlew. The duet of Robin Canter's cor anglais and Yuko Inoue's viola cast their shadows across these bleak settings of four Yeats poems in which the lush pastoralism of Delius's harmonic style is turned to darker ends. Gillingwater's voice, uniform throughout its range and mellow in colour, was well suited to the work's heavy atmosphere. In the monotone line of the second song, "The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love", he held a steady pitch. The third and longest song, with its haunting refrain of "The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams", perfectly caught the tone of loss and despair that is the work's most telling feature.

On a lighter note, Fred Tomlinson's A Curlew Companion, eight lyrics arranged for the same ensemble of woodwinds and string quartet, included Warlock's more rollicking tunes and Tudor codpieces alongside the two lovesongs "O Mistress Mine" and "There Is a Lady Sweet and Kind". Also stepping in at short notice, soprano Alison Wells sang with great confidence in a cycle clearly more suited to a male voice. It was moving to hear the composer's response to Yeats's famous "The Cloth of Heaven", and his last song, "The Fox", before Gemini ended the evening with a sharply focused reading of Contrasts, Ian Mitchell's clarinet again an impressive performer.

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