Gavin Higgins

Friday, June 17, 2022

Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, Suffolk

For their second appearance at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, Martyn Brabbins and BBCNOW followed with another absorbing concert, beginning with Grace Williams’s Sea Sketches (1944, London; she was Welsh). Scored for strings, it’s a finely crafted piece, immediately engaging and descriptive, perhaps owing to Arthur Bliss’s Music for Strings (1935, which Boult had premiered at the Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic), Williams using the chosen instruments with imagination to capture the sea both restless and lyrical, the mysteries of the deep, in rapid force, and ultimately at peace. The NOW strings were splendidly unanimous, colourful and expressive. Also in five concise movements, one of Benjamin Britten’s ‘late’ works, his Opus 90, Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974), nostalgically subtitled, which Leonard Bernstein soon took into his repertoire and recorded with the New York Philharmonic. Britten uses his chamber orchestra with plenty of variety, whether propulsive drums, beguiling harp, violins with their fur-flying, and ending with ‘Lord Melbourne’, a cor anglais in the spotlight, hauntingly sad, painfully climaxed. Brabbins led a zesty and sensitive rendition.

To a BrittenPears Arts/BBC co-commission, Gavin Higgins,, has written a cantata, The Faerie Bride, to words by Francesca Simon, of Horrid Henry fame. This Welsh lady-of-the-lake myth – one strand being accepting people for what they are – was given a notable first performance, the music starting in the depths, not many fathoms away from Das Rheingold, an ominous beginning, then soliloquys from the Man (on the ground) and Woman (inhabiting the water), expressing their respective observations and dispositions as well as narrating/taking-forward a story that will end forlornly: Man loses Woman to the Sea, for ever, he having broken/misunderstood her guidelines: three strikes (not necessarily physical) and you’re out. Higgins’s setting is mystical, animated and subtly detailed, dramatically intense without being overt, underscoring the characters and storyline – exemplary diction from the singers – with little in the way of emotional upsurges yet with a capacity to engage the senses, paint pictures, reveal finer feelings, and compel attention for close on fifty minutes.