Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I met with composer Kate Whitely

in February

to talk about her new settings of Charlotte Mew’s poetry. One of the issues
we’d discussed was the way Kate would respond to Mew’s occasional
regularity – of rhyme or structure – which seemed to require a different
approach to text-setting to that which she usually employed. In the event,
what struck me most was the way that the prosaic quality of Mew’s poetry
has shaped Kate’s musical response, but also, and correspondingly, the way
that the composer imposes her own will on the poetic form and syntax to
create persuasive musical structures and idioms.

Much of the success, I feel, of these settings lies in the craftmanship of
the accompanying string quartet dramas and conversations. The first poem
‘Sea Love’ commenced with a beautifully free viola gesture (played
expressively and confidently by ZoÎ Matthews) which simultaneously suggests
both the capaciousness and capriciousness of the ocean, as the player’s bow
whips in a whisper across the strings, mimicking the dynamic surges of wave
and tide. But, the instruments are no mere ‘sea-scape’, a backdrop to the
vocal line: instead, phrase-endings resume and rework vocal motifs. Matthew
Rose’s sonorous bass rang out with the passion and poise of an old
sea-farer evoking a man who, like Britten’s Captain Vere, “has experienced

‘The Farmer’s Bride’ – a rural man’s frustrated account of his marriage to
a woman who rejects his attentions and demands – was fittingly agitated,
Corentin Chassard’s cello line fluttering with breath-consuming anger and
impotence, further rent by stuttering leaps. Increasingly, as Rose’s
narrative accrued a fearsome, repressed power, I found myself wondering,
‘Where is the woman’s voice?’ In the sustained tones, or in the gestures of
movement and escape? The declamatory melodic idiom and steady rhythmic
repetitions – “Shy as a leveret, swift as he,/Straight and slight as a
young larch tree,/Sweet as the first wild violets, she,/To her wild self.
But what to me?” – seemed to embody both the wife’s inscrutability and the
farmer’s vexation. Both are violent energies which explode in a
crescendoing tremolo at the close, tumbling gratingly through depths of
anger, anxiety and ineffectualness.

After ‘Rooms’, in which the ppp violins (Fiona McCapra) evoked the
rootlessness of identity and the struggle for communion that Mew seeks to
explore and overcome, Rose was replaced by Katherine Broderick for the
final three songs. McCapra’s shaping of the violin’s whimsical and
impulsive flourishes – all open strings, slippery slithers and sparks – was
masterful and established a spirit of youthfulness and rebelliousness in ‘I
so liked Spring …’, while gentle pizzicatos, hushed and dry, hinted at the
‘Absence’ at the heart of the following poem-setting, though Whitley never
let the momentum dissipate, pushing forward with the “beat, beat/Of hooves
that tread dropped roses in the street.”, then allowing the music to
succumb to languidness, vanishing at the close: “Over my mouth, I must
answer. So,/I will come – He shall let me go.”

Restlessness returned in ‘Moorland Night’, where rushing scales,
flutterings and oscillations characterised the string textures. I did find
the shift to soprano voice after the first three bass songs, half-way
through the sequence, a little unsettling, especially given the ambiguity
of the poet-speaker’s voice (and in the light of Mew’s own equivocal
sexuality), but in all three settings for soprano Broderick used the text
and vocal colour to bring affecting emotion to the fore. Here, the image of
the curlew, heard as it “start[s] out from the heath/And [flies] off
calling through the dusk” was compelling, all the more so for the sudden
quiet that followed its “wild, long, rippling call -:”.

The recital had begun with Tom Poster’s The Turning Year, Poster
himself accompanying Rose. I heard the first performance of the
pianist-composer’s settings of poetry by his father, Jem Poster, at

Wigmore Hall

at the start of the month, so won’t comment at length on details. But, I
did find that this performance had a greater, and welcome, freedom in
delivery. Perhaps it was the Temple Church acoustic that carried the
piano’s paradoxically fragile-steely glitterings aloft, and enriched the
innate amplitude and warmth of Rose’s capacious and communicative bass, or
perhaps it was familiarity – on my part, and on the part of the performers
– but The Turning Year engaged me much more intently and
emotionally on this occasion. If only Rose had more frequently looked up
from his score, so engrossed did he seem to be in the music’s progress. The
pictorialisms of the summer landscape – “a fuzz of sound: the hum of bees
fumbling the heather-bells,/the burring flight of beetles, the crickets’
seamless song” – here acquired a fresh, urgent presence, and the gradual
swirling of the autumn wind burst forth with a frightening, visceral force,
which seemed to propel Rose through the text with dynamism and drama,
making the easing of the final line – “You draw the curtains, bring food to
the table, set the evening right.” – even more affecting. With the coming
of winter, the high piano turned brittle, though a melodious falling 6 th in the vocal line, “the hills are white with snow”, offered
consolation. Rose’s inky bass wonderfully conveyed the “gathering darkness”
at the close which “brings them home”.

In contrast, I found Jordan Hunt’s Songs Without (in which the
composer sets his own text) rather tiresome, though there could be no fault
with the performances of Broderick, Poster, violinist Jan Schmolck and
cellist Sally Pendlebury. The biography offered in the programme suggests
that Hunt, drawing on his experiences as a violinist in The Irrepressibles ‘creates vivid, emotive music, weaving melodic
‘sad pop’ and symphonic-inspired textures’; I found the minimalist
rockings, repetitions, oscillations and harmonic stagnation to be
disengaging, though the musicians made every effort to introduce dynamic
gradation and variety, and Broderick sought to imbue the vocal line with
colours inferring popular and folk influences, and to find drama in the
text. The voice’s fortissimo rise at the close of ‘Song Without Love/Song
Without Abandon’ (“Your pinion to fly/ Your atlas to be free”) generated
real movement and freedom. And, there were onomatopoeic accompaniment
gestures – as in the metallic snap of “Clipped wings” at the start of ‘Song
Without End/Song Without Return’; or the soporific translucence of the
string repetitions in ‘Song Without Sleep/Song Without Death’ – that did
focus one’s attention. The almost Straussian gloss and richness of
Broderick’s soprano at the close seemed to carry the music on into

David Bruce tackles some challenging texts in Out of Hours, the
five poems of which share a theme, being connected by times of the day when
we may feel ‘connected to life and emotions’. However, the poetry by
Shakespeare, Blake, Dunbar, Donne and Keats expresses its ‘meaning’ as much
by its formal patterning and control as by individual images and words, and
Bruce’s fragmentation of the text into disjunction words and phrases did
not aid our comprehension of the broader semantic and poetic meaning. Thus,
the minimalist throbbings and oscillations accompanied Matthew Rose in
‘Full Many a Glorious Morning’ (Shakespeare) seemed to inspire a melismatic
elongation of syllable and word which I found disruptive to communication
of the poem’s intent. The frisky rhythmic interplay of the violins and
violas did conjure the vivacity of the children’s communal games depicted
by Blake in ‘The Nurse’s Song’ – the pizzicato playfulness reminded me of
Britten’s Simple Symphony – which was dynamically sung by
Broderick. And, ‘On Leaving some Friends at an Early Hour’ was notable for
some ethereal colours in the strings and the ‘strangeness’ of unearthly
harmonics. But, despite the commitment of both Rose and Broderick, I found
it hard to engage with these settings.

Bruce employed a string septet, and this offered the opportunity to close
the concert with a performance of Strauss’s Metamorphosen arranged
for the same forces. I heard the Britten Sinfonia perform this version at

Wigmore Hall

in February: it’s not easy to master its scale, form and intensity with
just seven players. Here, the ensemble was sometimes less than precise –
Schmolck did not really seem to ‘lead’ the ensemble, and there were some
anxious glances between the players – and the performance was tense rather
than imbued with dramatic tension and release. It’s a repetitive work, so
the recurring motifs need to be carefully delineated and calibrated for the
structural backbone to be discernible; here there was no persuasive sense
of gradation, progress, climax and resolution. Perhaps the players had not
had adequate time to rehearse? Whatever, it was a competent rather than a
compelling performance.

During the evening Kate Whitley was awarded the 2018 Critics Circle Award.
Her Six Settings of Charlotte Mew, alongside her other
compositions and community-orientated activities, more than justified this
accolade and I greatly look forward to hearing more from this talented
young composer in the future.

Claire Seymour

Matthew Rose and Friends
: Temple Music, Temple Church, London; Tuesday 30th April 2019.

Matthew Rose (bass), Katherine Broderick (soprano), Fiona McCapra/Jan
Schmolck/Eloisa-Fleur Thom (violin), ZoÎ Matthews/Douglas Paterson (viola),
Corentin Chassard/Sally Pendlebury (cello), Lynda Houghton (double bass),
Tom Poster (piano)

Jordan Hunt – Songs Without; Tom Poster –The Turning Year; Kate Whitley –Six Charlotte Mew Settings (world premiere); David Bruce – Out of Hours (world premiere); Strauss – Metamorphosen.

product_title=Matthew Rose and Friends: Temple Church
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Kate Whitley

Photo credit: Ambra Vernuccio