H7steria, Pappenheim, Bell, Hughes, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London


Michael Church
Tuesday 04 December 2012 11:10

It was pure serendipity that Jocelyn Pook’s "Hearing Voices" for mezzo-soprano, recorded voices, and orchestra should chime so neatly with the debate which has suddenly broken out - not least in this newspaper - about how society treats mental illness.

Pook's trigger was the discovery of her great-aunt Phyllis’s notebooks in a battered old trunk, which described her thoughts on being locked away in an asylum. She interwove this manuscript with testimonies from other women who had been through the mental treatment mill, and she added in the tale of a German seamstress who stitched a cryptic autobiographical text into a jacket she created from her asylum uniform.

If this sounds unwieldy, it became light as a feather thanks to a score which began with gently throbbing Glass-type ostinatos, and grew steadily more interesting, and above all thanks to Melanie Pappenheim’s remarkable performance.

Incarnating four characters in succession, she began as a psychologist in a white coat, moved into song as the seamstress, and then proceeded to alter her timbre as orchestration and character required. Obsessive-compulsive disorder became harsh repeated blasts on brass; hallucinations took on a boogying quality.

Her final character spoke dreamily of flying off a high bridge: here Pappenheim’s gaze became mesmerising, and when she burst into an ecstatic vocal equivalent of birdsong – liberated from the duty to make rational sense – the work found its own sweet resolution.

Two other works in this concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Charles Hazlewood offered fascinating variations on this theme. Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ is a mélodrame in which the protagonist declaims Albert Giraud’s Symbolist poetry in a mode mid-way between song and speech, and it was brilliantly performed by soprano Alison Bell: there was nothing mannered in her delivery, as - supported by exquisitely delicate accompaniment - the imagery was allowed to follow its own crazy momentum.

Then soprano Ruby Hughes sang two excerpts from Peter Maxwell Davies’s score for Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’, gracefully reminding us how magical this composer’s work can be when his stars are in the right alignment.   

But this was a Radio 3 event with studiously worked-up ‘atmosphere’, and it ended on a vacuously populist note. Patrick Nunn’s arrangement of the Muse single which had given this concert its title was four minutes of derivative, meretricious, over-hyped nothing.

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