On the Shore of the Mind

St John's Church, Edinburgh
Sunday 24 June 2014

* * * * Bachtrack, Alan Coady

The withdrawal of a programme's core item tests the cohesion of the 'supporting' works. Gabriel Jackson's song cycle On the Shore of the Mind was to have explored resonances in Scottish and Caribbean island life. The attendant works variously explored: Robert Burns' connection with that sunnier part of the world; Cuban composers from Burns' time to the present day; that element without which it's impossible either to join or leave island life - the sea.

Grouped amongst the Caribbean composers was violinist, legendary fencer and founding member of a regiment of black, Napoleonic soldiers, Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint George. A ballet sequence and song from his comic opera L'Amant Anonyme opened the evening. Its charms suggested great promise for the acoustic of St John's; the lively, delicate playing suited the music's classical elegance and soprano Susan Hamilton was in fine voice. Also to end his lengthy lifespan in France was José White Lafitte whose habañera La Bella Cubana depicts a beautiful female compatriot. This was delivered with the sense of style of an ensemble already famed for tango. Calixto Álvarez's Los Pregoneros portrayed the eponymous 'criers' who, by means of a slow conga, herald the arrival of, say, a political event or procession. The stylishly swung sultry syncopations brought home just how indoors and unmusical our own political life is. The most lush of all the Cuban offerings, Fabio Landa's Pequeña Suite Cubana combined lush Ravel-like, harmonies with Afro-Cuban rhythms - doubly rich!

The majority of the nautical items featured Susan Hamilton, whose ornamentation (and the word scarcely does justice to the effect) energised Purcell's settings of Shakespeare and Dryden. In “Full Fathom Five” from The Tempest it was ear-catching to hear such activity on the word “nothing” until the line continued, “Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change”. Hamilton's rendition of the all too easily overdone Dido's Lament (Aeneas having set sail) was as tasteful as it was moving.

Robert McFall confessed lasting curiosity about the reaction of Aeneas' maritime forces to Dido's fate. Examination of Brecht and Weill's “Was die Herren Matrosen sagen” (What The Sailors Say), from Happy End confirmed a suspicion that they probably didn't “give a damn”. In wonderfully clear German, Hamilton continued the mood of fecklessly profane fatalism so vivaciously initiated in Weill's dominant pedal introduction. Modestly unclaimed in the programme, this was a fine arrangement by McFall, its string quintet palette somehow retaining the energy of the original stage band.

McFall's fine hand informed a varied collection of Burns' songs. “Ae Fond Kiss” - set to the original hymn-like tune, “Rory Dall's Port” rather than the one more familiar to January denizens of haggis-imbued halls - was delicately sung by Hamilton. The dedicatee of this song of farewell, Mrs Agnes Maclehose aka Nancy, aka Clarinda, was setting sail for Jamaica for an unsuccessful reconciliation with her husband. “The Slave's Lament”, depicted Burns' compassion for the occupants of slave ships seen while in Dundee. Through an ingenious confection of pointillism, counterpoint, pizzicato and arco, McFall managed to capture not only the Scots provenance of the song, but the distant shores of lost Senegal and unsought Virginia.

Four of the five songs from Errollyn Wallen's Are you worried about the rising cost of funerals? formed the programme's replacement core. The intriguing title was spotted in the window of a government office in Wallen's current home city of London. Scored for soprano and string quartet the work sets Wallen's own words. Already convincing in French and German, in addition to Scots dialect, Hamilton embraced another vernacular for the voice of the American preacher featured in the opening “Beehive”. Despite the heroically wide vocal intervals, the language was essentially bluesy; the quartet references Miles Davis' “All Blues”.

Much less tonal was “Mary” which explored a character prone to placing herself in danger. While singing, Hamilton also conducted the movement's less obviously metered moments. The harmonic warmth of “Guru” seemed to sympathise with those drawn towards cults, especially in the refrain, “nobody wants to be alone”. Hamilton made light work of the soaring soprano part. The closing “End of my days” references bravery in the face of mortality exhibited by a friend of the composer. The viola's tremolando, the cello's bare fifths, and the angularly exercised soprano part all contributed greatly to the emotion.

Hearing this work was an unexpected enrichment. Perhaps the originally envisaged core of the programme will one day feature amongst the fine arrangements so wonderfully played here to enthusiastic and vocal audience response. Dedicated to Mrs McFall on their 40th wedding anniversary, this programme ended like most Scots weddings - with Auld Lang Syne.

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