Sensational revival of McCabe’s Notturni ed Alba; UK premiere of Kats-Chernin’s Big Rhap; VW London

St John’s Smith Square, London, October 16th, 2023

It has become something of a commonplace to regard the Kensington Symphony Orchestra as the finest amateur orchestra in Britain. Opening their 68th season (and Russell Keable’s fortieth at the helm) with as challenging a programme as any of their professional rivals in the capital might attempt, with a premiere, a prominent revival and a classic—and all of twentieth or twenty-first century repertoire.

First up was Elena Kats-Chernin’s brash and noisy Big Rhap, composed in 2017 and first performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey at the Hamer Hall Arts Centre, Melbourne that year. Kats-Chernin (b1957 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan but long resident in Australia after a substantial sojourn in Germany) is undeniably one of the most successful composers currently writing, although best known—at least in the UK—for Eliza’s Aria, a movement from her 2002 ballet Wild Swans, which was used for many years as backing music for a TV advertising campaign by Lloyds/TSB. Big Rhap is nothing like Eliza’s Aria, although there is a similar degree of whimsy in its creation. Recalling her mother playing Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody when Kats-Chernin was still resident in the Soviet Union as a child, she channelled these “early memories of the spectacle, merriment and hyperbole I saw in my living room on to paper.” Kats-Chernin does not quote Liszt directly (she did not consult the score), and there seemed rather more of Khachaturyan in the orchestral drive across the work’s nine or so minutes. The overall impression was of a fun, slightly silly piece, and certainly tested the orchestra, mostly in the few quieter sections.

Music of considerably greater moment followed when, after a brief and gracious speech by Keable about John McCabe (1939-2015), whose music the Kensington Symphony have played several times over the years, they revived with soprano Donna Lennard the wonderful song-cycle Notturni ed Alba (1970), one of the crowning achievements of McCabe’s early period of composition. Notturni ed Alba consists of three nocturnes and an aubade (the ‘Alba’ of the title) setting four medieval poems in Latin describing aspects of Night, from sunset in the opening Hymnus ante Somnum (‘Hymn before Sleep’), through to dawn. The cycle proved a sterner and subtler test for the orchestra, but they rose to the challenge magnificently, from the magical, shimmering opening to the glorious closing pages. True, the opening paragraph did seem a touch too loud, but the acoustic of St John’s—with the orchestra stretching almost half-way down the auditorium—was not helpful in this respect, and they quickly settled into the score as the textures thinned a touch. Keable directed firmly with a clear view of the musical structure, nowhere more so than in the spectral instrumental prelude (Phantoms) to the second song, Te Vigilans Oculis (literally, “Watching you with eyes”), with its intensely difficult percussion writing that would tax a professional orchestra. The Kensington section navigated it with aplomb, setting up the soloist for her dramatic entry.

And it was Donna Lennard who rightly dominated proceedings, despite the large forces behind her. She had no problems making herself heard, producing a beautifully nuanced interpretation of impressive subtlety and control, really acting her part as the intensity ramped up in the third song, Somnia (‘Sleep’), reacting physically to the orchestra’s outbursts when she was silent, and no mere conduit for the sound when not. Her change in demeanour for the radiant Alba was as beguiling as her singing; here is a singer who seems to really feel the music she performs, There are several versions of the work available in YouTube: Judith Howarth in Liverpool, Beverley Bergen in Sydney (an at times rather shrill account and, beware, the recording has lost its final minutes) and, best of all, Jill Gomez in the EMI recording conducted by Louis Frémaux which has come in and out of the catalogue several times in the past half-century. Lennard’s is as fine as any interpretation of these songs. I would urgently recommend to orchestral managements up and down the country to take advantage of Lennard’s knowledge of this marvellous music and programme it: the ovation in the hall was rapturous.

The late John McCabe would undeniably have focussed more of his attention on the final work on the programme, A London Symphony by his beloved Vaughan Williams and the second he composed—given here in the familiar revised version from 1918 and 1934. Keable directed a very fine account, beautifully shaped in each of the four movements and with some really quiet playing when appropriate—but filling St John’s with sound when needed. Next up for the orchestra is a programme of Czech music culminating in Martinů’s severe, compelling Third, by way of Dvořák’s Wood Dove and Janáček’s Taras Bulba. This orchestra is truly going from strength to strength!

Guy Rickards

Hon Sec, Music Section