Revue Ed Lyon/James Cleverton/Psappha – moving and lyrical premieres | Classical music
Jhe Psappha ensemble is a tireless champion of new music and, as usual, the program it presented at the Cheltenham Festival consisted entirely of premieres. Three of the four works were heard for the first time in the world: shared commissions between the festival and Wild Plum Arts, which was created to support new music and its interpretation. One of the founders of Wild Plum, tenor Christopher Gillett, acted as host for the concert.
The most important work was Conor Mitchell’s Look Both Ways, featuring excerpts from the exchange of letters between Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears of the 1940s, when the tenor was often on tour while Britten stayed in Aldeburgh to compose . With tenor and baritone soloists – the excellent Ed Lyon and James Cleverton – backed by a piano trio, Mitchell’s cycle of touching and intelligent melodies is careful to underline the difference in tone between the two counterparts.
Pears’ words are assigned to the tenor, often with just the piano as accompaniment, and tuned much more lyrically than Britten’s more cautious and less effusive responses, which the baritone delivers more prosaically, backed by the strings. Pears’ music is laced with fleeting allusions to some of the composers in his repertoire – Schubert, Schumann, Cole Porter – perhaps underlining how much more worldly he was than his partner. His lyrics also reveal their fears as a gay couple at that time. “I am filled with terrors,” he admits at one point. “Let us live”.
On a much smaller scale, Claire Victoria Roberts’ Like Ships Adrift took a similar approach to the written exchanges between Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. A sequence of tiny instrumental pieces was interspersed with spoken fragments delivered by Gillett, often striking enough to wish it had all been a bit more substantial.
The concert began with Jeffrey Mumford’s purely instrumental Undiluted Days: five short, rather austere movements receiving their UK premiere more than 20 years after they were composed. But it ended on a much more upbeat note with Bobbie-Jane Gardner’s arrangement of Odetta’s 1970 anthem Hit or Miss, with Lyon and Cleverton managing to get Cheltenham audiences to applaud if not quite. .