Mary Woodward Review

Royal Northern Sinfonia by candlelight, North Esk Church, Musselburgh, Review

**** (4 stars)

North Esk Church’s exterior is not particularly beautiful or impressive, but inside it is absolutely gorgeous.  Plain, simply decorated in subtle shades of grey, it has a fabulous acoustic and looked lovelier than ever in the gentle glow on candlelight – the perfect setting for last night’s concert from the Royal Northern Sinfonia.  Based at the Sage in Gateshead, and the UK’s only full-time chamber orchestra, they had braved the arctic weather currently gripping Scotland to bring us an evening of [mostly] Baroque music that transported us from the everyday world to a haven of peace and tranquility.

Violinist Maria Włosczczowska opened the evening with the passacaglia from Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonata.  It’s a meditation full of light and shade, at once simple and astoundingly complex, shivering into the silence of the church, crying out then whispering so quietly you had to strain to hear – an intimate conversation between instrument and player over four repeated descending notes.  The silence when Maria stopped playing stretched on and on as we rested in the place of peace into which she had invited us.

The Royal Northern Sinfonia – who nearly all play standing – joined Maria Włosczczowska on stage for Archangelo Corelli’s concerto grosso Op 6 no 8, known as the Christmas concerto.   A solemn opening was followed by, according to my notes, “the orchestra going bananas”, with many layers of voices in excited conversation, after which tempo and mood changed frequently and small groups of soloists alternated with the full orchestra.  The rhythmic and melodic complexity of the music was rendered with great precision and beautifully delicate phrasing – an utter joy to listen to, even before we reached the Famous Bit – the final gentle, pastoral movement which conjures up images of shepherds abiding with their flocks by night before the angels burst upon them with the good news of the Christ child’s birth.

The Christmas theme continued with O beata infantia [O blessed infant] by 12th centurty German abbess, visionary mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen.  Mezzo-soprano Bethany Horak-Hallett stood at the back of the church – right beside where I was sitting – and poured out her clear, pure tone into the body of the church.  It didn’t matter what the words were – we were wrapped in the feeling of blessedness.

Contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s trisagion was written for the 500th anniversary of the Finnish Orthodox church dedicated to the prophet Elijah in Ilantsi.  It’s a wordless meditation on an Orthodox hymn in which the various sections of the score embody the different verses of the hymn.  Pärt’s music is mysterious, subdued, and spare.  Like the Hildegard von Bingen piece, trisagion invited us to let our minds and hearts flow free as we listened to the orchestral voices calling across vast open spaces – a plaintive, urgent melody, a sudden increase in tempo and rhythm, a high shivering solo call over a deep sombre voice, a warmer, fuller sound, a pulsating bass line rising in intensity before all the voices in unison slowly faded into silence.

After the interval, Purcell’s Chacony in G minor brought us another helping of joy.  Despite the minor key, and with occasional hints of Dido’s Lament, the constantly repeated bass line underpinned interweaving solo and choral voices.  Full of emotion, swelling and dying, the Sinfonia’s delicate precision encompassed the contrasts of texture and volume in a glorious piece contained in but not constrained by its simple form.

J S Bach’s solo church cantata Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut [BWV 199] brought Bethany Horak-Hallett to the church’s pulpit.  Raised high above the orchestra, she was ideally placed to let her voice soar out above the instruments: though on a couple of occasions her voice seemed trapped inside her, the rest of the time it rang out beautifully.  The title’s translation is My heart swims in blood: my German wasn’t up to understanding what was being sung, but again this didn’t really matter.  There was a fair amount of sorrow and metaphorical breast-beating, no doubt over the singer’s sinfulness, but it all ended cheerfully – even triumphantly – with forgiveness and reconciliation.  

Regardless of whether you buy into the theological niceties, it’s a magnificent work – opera but about God.  It’s passionate and dramatic, full of joy as well as sorrow, and affords opportunities for soloists from the Sinfonia to duet with the singer – not accompanists but equal partners in creation.  I couldn’t see the [seated] woodwind player who made outstanding contributions to the work [on oboe or bassoon?] but could clearly see and appreciate the viola player’s contribution.  Alas, I can’t name either of them, nor the second violin soloist – the programme didn’t name the members of the orchestra.  

I am, however, able to credit conductor Dinis Sousa on his impeccable direction of this superb chamber orchestra.  The applause throughout the evening was warm and generous, and indicated a great desire to see a return visit by the Royal Northern Sinfonia as soon as possible.  Many of us welcomed the opportunity to take part in the encore offered to help us recover from the intensity of the Bach cantata.  Two verses of In the bleak mid-winter reminded us of the Christmas message and braced us to leave the warmth of the church and emerge into Musselburgh’s starry, frosty darkness.

Royal Northern Sinfonia by candlelight, North Esk Church, Musselburgh, Run Ended

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