THE FIBONACCI SEQUENCE: WANDSWORTH ARTS FESTIVAL, 22.5.09
The Fibonacci Sequence's lunch-time concerts at St. Mary's Church right by the river in Putney are unique. The church and its excellent café (today there were, in addition, colourful food stalls outside that made me wish I had not had lunch already) are light and welcoming, the concert atmosphere informal and relaxed, but the performances highly disciplined and at the same time full of expression and excitement. Today's programme centred round Gillian Tingay's brilliant and joyful harp playing, and was unique in another respect, namely the seamless incorporation of two young guest artists from the Royal College of Music, the 'cellist Corentin Chassard and the tenor John McCunn, into the ensemble led by Gillian Tingay and the Fibonacci's excellent oboist, Christopher O'Neal.
The programme characteristically consisted almost entirely of little-known pieces, most of them of the C20, but all of them fresh and immediately approachable. Christopher O'Neal, introducing William Alwyn's recently-rediscovered Suite for Oboe and Harp, written for Leon and Sidonie Goossens in 1945, reminded us that in the 30s, Alwyn was considered somewhat avant garde, but the Suite consists of three delightful, melodious dance movements, modally coloured, the oboe integrated into Alwyn's expertly-fashioned harp writing, the only hint of modernity being an expressive section in five-time in the final Jig.
These days one is tempted to forget that Gabriel Fauré's Après un Rêve was originally a song before all the world's 'cellists appropriated it, but today Corentin Chassard's 'cello was accompanied by harp instead of piano, which somehow took the piece out of the drawing room and into a Romantic world all of its own. Chassard's introverted, thoughtful style and veiled tone (sounding at times like a Baroque 'cello with gut strings) suited the piece perfectly. It was followed by a two-movement Fantasia by Telemann, originally for unaccompanied flute, but today played on the oboe by Christopher O'Neal, giving Gillian Tingay her only rest in the entire programme. O'Neal played with extraordinary ease and fluency, incorporating the low notes that adumbrate the harmonic bass effortlessly into the line.
Next came two solo harp pieces. Chanson de la Nuit is a brilliantly-written, atmospheric tone-poem by Carlos Salzedo, full of the special effects and techniques with which he almost single-handedly created C20 harp-writing, which was played equally brilliantly and poetically by Gillian Tingay, her ease of manner failing to disguise her virtuosity. Watching the Wheat, a charming piece based on a simple song-like tune that returns at the end, enclosed in brilliant figuration (where Tingay's internal balance was perfect, making one listen for the kernel of simple tune while never obliterating it), was by Thomas. Thomas? Grove's Dictionary lists some 20 composers called Thomas, but I guessed the C19 opera composer Ambroise Thomas (and an originally French title), the tune perhaps from one of his operas — until I did some online research and discovered that it was by the Welsh composer John Thomas and is based on a traditional Welsh song. Ah well, win some, lose some; but the piece and Tingay's performance were a delight.
The final piece was by far the most unusual and interesting. André Jolivet's Suite Liturgique consists of settings of Salve Regina, Alleluia, Magnificat and Benedictus for tenor with varying combinations of cor anglais alternating with oboe, 'cello and harp, with an instrumental Prelude, an instrumental Interlude between the Benedictus and the surprisingly short vocal and instrumental Final, and — strangely! — a Musette between the Magnificat and the Benedictus. A musette was a small Baroque bagpipe and the dances played on it had pastoral associations; in the context of liturgical texts addressed to the Virgin Mary or dealing with the coming of Christ, could the Musette be an evocation of the shepherds watching in the fields? At any rate, the Suite is a powerful and expressive work of real stature, at times chromatic and harmonically bold. The ensemble was joined by the tenor John McMunn as well as his fellow-guest from the RCM, the 'cellist Corentin Chassard. The latter's veiled tone and rhythmic understatement led occasionally to a slight tonal and emotional imbalance, particularly because John McMunn sang with unusual fervour and passion as well as with accuracy, musicality, clear diction and an intense, focussed tone, but overall the performance matched the stature of the work and formed the climax to a most rewarding concert.