Performers: The Gavin Bryars Ensemble
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Nothing like the Sun was commissioned by Opera North and the Royal Shakespeare Company some ten years ago. Now the Gavin Bryars Ensemble has brought his song-cycle based on Shakespeare’s sonnets to the Howard Assembly Room. As it runs to about 50 minutes, it is usually supplemented by other works. In its original performances settings of Shakespeare’s sonnets by other composers filled the first half. At the Howard, rather more successfully judging from earlier reviews, the evening began with instrumental works by Bryars, plus just one of those Shakespeare settings: Gavin Friday’s emphatic take on Sonnet 40, punctuated by bass clarinet and xylophone, Friday’s breathy speaking of the poem rising to a dramatic falsetto.
The full eight-piece instrumental forces of the ensemble assembled for only one of the Bryars pieces in the first half, The North Shore, with a superbly played solo part by Morgan Goff on viola. With another viola, cello and Bryars himself on double bass, the piece explored the sonorities of the lower strings, a sound world enhanced by the clarinet frequently switching to bass clarinet. Completing the octet were piano (pretty much under-used throughout the evening), percussion (imaginatively deployed) and, surprisingly, guitar, both acoustic and electric.
The North Shore dates from 1994. The two quartet pieces, It Never Rains and The Flower of Friendship, are much later, but little had changed. Both employed the lower strings: viola, cello, double bass, guitar. Both were essentially melodic and both settled to a soothing slowish tempo. Bryars is adept at creating atmosphere, but there were few changes of mood, though the skilful use of electric guitar in The Flower of Friendship provided an original touch.
There was much to enjoy in Nothing Like the Sun, intelligently unfussy settings of Shakespeare, but again there was a lack of variety, in both tempo and the nearly unchanging format of each of the eight movements: Friday intoned the sonnet over an instrumental accompaniment, then Sarah Dacey or John Potter or (most often) both sang Bryars’ setting of the sonnet with great respect for the words and at a now familiar tempo. Dacey and Potter’s clean and expressive singing was perfect for the work and Bryars’ scoring produced its fair share of imaginative flourishes: the piano postlude in Sonnet 128 (a poem referring to playing the virginals), the clarinet and bowed xylophone effects on Sonnet 102, the use of the cimbalom on Sonnet 55.
Individually, all the pieces made a strong impression; over an evening the problem was it was the same impression. As a song cycle, Nothing like the Sun contained eight pleasing settings of poems, but lacked contrast and a sense of overall structure, though the final moments – fragments of sung and spoken word – provided a suitably moving conclusion.
Reviewed on 25 October 2017 | Image: Contributed