Iffley Music Society

By Giles Woodforde

masked musicians
An uncompromising work by Benjamin Britten and two pieces by little known contemporary composers — it’s not exactly a recipe for box office success. In fact, Iffley Music Society had to turn people away because the parish church was full. OK, James Gilchrist was involved, and there are those (me included) who would go and hear Gilchrist if he was merely singing entries from the phone directory. But nonetheless the turnout was remarkable.

Gilchrist was the soloist in Britten’s Canticle III, Still Falls the Rain. Scored for tenor, horn, and piano, the work is a spare, intense meditation on the 1940 London air raids. Britten later added three songs with words by Edith Sitwell, to provide some comparatively light relief. Gilchrist gave the whole work great depth of feeling, and was superbly supported by Nicholas Korth, principal horn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and by pianist Julian Milford.

Milford was next involved in much leaping up and down as he periodically inserted glass rods and a chisel into his piano: George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) also includes a cello (Thomas Carroll) and a flute (Daniel Pailthorpe). All three instruments are electronically tweaked to produce an impressionistic and hypnotic feeling of whales smashing up through waves, then subsiding to hold an underwater conversation.

Nicholas Korth composes as well as playing the horn, and his Harmoniae Naturales III: Shadows, here received its world premiere. Initially focusing on one note, an unthreatening middle D, the piece gradually amplifies the natural harmonics of that note. An overtone singer (Rollin Rachele) vocalises the harmonics, and in contrast a more conventional setting of Wendell Berry’s poem The Springs (sung by Gilchrist) is fed in as a centrepiece. Korth’s fascinating score made me feel that I was both listening to alien music from outer space, and to something familiar all at the same time. This was an altogether remarkable concert.

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