You think you've heard it all, and then along comes a new experience: poet and composer performing their own song cycle. Before everybody shouts "Lennon and McCartney", it isn't the same. Each of that duo sang his own tunes and words, in the age-old, worldwide tradition. What Robert Tear and Jonathan Dove came up with for the Spitalfields Winter Festival felt more rooted and vernacular than recitals usually do, but it still had the classical division: first the words, then the music.
All the same, in the classical world the appearance of Tear as singer-poet is surely unique. It was the star turn of this year's festival, evidence that under Dove's direction the various Spitalfields events have gained imagination and energy.
The six poems in Out of Winter started out as a response to the poems by Thomas Hardy that Benjamin Britten had set in his song collection Winter Words. Readers whose knowledge of Tear's writing is limited to the title of his memoirs, Tear Here, may have feared the worst. Those who actually read the book know better. Although on the page his poems do keep pushing the message after you've got the point, that suits singing. Composers who set laconic texts packed with gnomic imagery forget that the words don't have a listener's full attention however clearly the singer puts them across.
A couple of Tear's laboured jokes get in, but even here Dove devises musical wit to make the audience chuckle anyway. Overriding it all is a positive sense of movement as the cycle progresses from age and death to thoughts of eternity, which eloquently catch the feeling of agnostic spirituality.
Tear can also write sounds that lie well on his own voice, and no pre-existing poetry will do that. Dove's melodic lines give the word sounds and the voice what they need. In many ways Dove has emerged as a successor to Britten through his commitment to voices, music for the stage, and music for communities. Well-crafted simplicity is one means. So is musical suggestion, and his straightforward but subtly melodic use of the timeless trains-over-the-tracks rhythm in the second song is an instance worthy of his great predecessor.
Entirely Dove's own is a neat but unlaboured pick-up of the final song's reference to "Zadok the Priest": Handel meets Glass in a vision of ringing broken chords. Harmonic and rhythmic links echo the unifying drift of the words. Soaring high passages let Tear show that his familiar bright timbres are still well husbanded. Central item was a concentrated and intensely lyrical performance of Michael Tippett's "The Blue Guitar" by James Boyd, enough to rescue Tippett's quirky guitar writing temporarily from the limbo into which this composer's whimsical mix of the focused and the casual has been falling since his death.
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