Hearing Gilbert & Sullivan on period instruments was a revelation

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

27 April 2019

9:00 AM

‘I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,’ wrote Stravinsky in one of his more honest moments, and when it comes to humour the old fox had a point. Strip away words, visuals, parody and extra-musical associations (the flatulent bassoon; the raspberry-blowing trumpet) and Orpheus, unaided, doesn’t have much left in his comic armoury. Two concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall could almost have been test cases. Geoffrey Paterson conducted the London Sinfonietta in the UK première of No. 50 (The Garden) by Richard Ayres, a composer whose playful, surreal sensibility cheerfully jettisons any idea of music as an end in itself.

At least, that’s been the case in the handful of his works that I’ve experienced live; namely his opera No. 47 (Peter Pan) and his ‘animated concert’ No. 42 (In the Alps) (like the artist Martin Creed, Ayres numbers each piece as if it’s already an item in a catalogue — a self-consciously artificial sonic object to be viewed from all sides). The Garden was virtuosically scored for a 12-piece band plus electronics, superbly integrated by Sound Intermedia, and maintaining an unsettling background burble of traffic noise, static buzz and birdsong, with occasional breaks into pounding dancefloor beats.

The bass Joshua Bloom ducked and darted through all this — standing on an AstroTurf lectern and swinging crazily from Wagnerian thunder to wheedling falsetto as he adopted the roles, variously, of a narrator, a worm and a gloomy cyanobacterium. (Ayres claims to have assembled the text from Poe, Dante and Giacomo Leopardi, among others.) A row of shiny toy mushrooms sat in front of him, and a quick whack on one added another layer of electronic distortion. It was all very kooky, and Ayres’s score is as busy as a toddler on a sugar rush. Titters ran through the audience as the brass players blew a baroque canzona, kazoo-like, through their mouthpieces alone. Elsewhere, Ayres sounded as though he was rummaging through a bumper box of musical Lego: straight edges, motor rhythms; a fragment of Mahler, a corner of Kurt Weill; all somehow clicking together in primary-coloured incongruity.

Whether the music would stand up in isolation was beside the point. From beginning to end it accompanied a film by Martha Colburn; a faux-naif collage of what looked like scratchboard animation and found images, occasionally flashing up a chunk of the text to deadpan effect. It felt a bit like something you might encounter at 1 a.m. on Channel 4 under the title ‘Best of New Animation’. And as often happens when music and visuals meet, the visuals won, the words came a narrow second and the music got on with its job. Since the text referenced missiles and Newtonian physics, I initially assumed it was a 1980s-style anti-nuclear parable. Nothing so retro: Ayres took his bow in an Extinction Rebellion T-shirt. Worms good; extinction bad. Now you know.

The Extinction Rebellion kids got a shout-out during the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Gilbert and Sullivan too. ‘That well-intentioned beardie, the ecoterrorist/ I’ve got him on my list’ sang Simon Butteriss, and the capacity audience fell about — inadvertently proving that in the G&S partnership Gilbert tends to come out ahead even when he didn’t actually write the words. From Mozart and Da Ponte to Bacharach and David, it’s rare to find a songwriting partnership in which the wordsmith gets first billing; the result, however justified, has been to diminish the scope of Sullivan’s achievement. The first half of this concert offered something of a corrective.

In fact, the idea — Gilbert and Sullivan on period instruments — was so brilliant that it’s astonishing that no one has done it before. John Wilson, conducting, understands song and dance, and the energy of the music fizzed up from the basses: springy, balletic, on its toes. The overture to The Gondoliers was like the first sip of an Aperol spritz. In extracts from Ruddigore and Iolanthe, Sullivan’s woodwind shadings glowed through the orchestration. Shrill period piccolo and wobbly trombone detached themselves from the top and bottom of the ensemble sound to form a Laurel and Hardy sonic pairing.

Interestingly, the biggest ovation of the night went to the most serious number, as Louise Alder sang ‘Oh Goddess Wise’ from Princess Ida. G&S knew exactly how to adapt to each other’s needs. The (studiedly conventional) words here took second place to Sullivan’s soaring melody, just as, when Gilbert ignites his verbal fireworks, Sullivan steps discreetly back. There was no shortage of those in a semi-staged Trial by Jury after the interval. Butteriss was the Judge, Alder was an amusingly petulant Angelina and Robert Murray an unctuous Edwin. Wilson and the OAE, meanwhile, gave new meaning to the term ‘champagne operetta’. Too many theatrical G&S productions still settle for Babycham on the podium. This was Dom Pérignon.

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