If you created an iTunes playlist entitled ‘English Music’ and set it on shuffle for fourteen items, you’d probably end up with something akin to the O/Modǝrnt Chamber Orchestra’s ‘Fairest Isle’ collation on Sunday evening. A few connections strung together by a patchy programme note does not make for a well-thought-out bill of fare. In an irritatingly Zen twist, the concert’s title song (despite the programme note spending three paragraphs explaining its parent semi-opera, Purcell’s King Arthur) was not performed, even though the forces to do so (mezzo Luciana Mancini, theorbist Christoph Sommer and string instruments) were available. Elgar knew what he was doing when he wrote his exquisite Serenade for Strings: the almost-hesitant end to the first movement finds resolution in the succeeding Larghetto, and to follow it, instead, with Tavener’s Mother of God, here I stand – no matter how beautifully sung by The Cardinall’s Musick – makes for an unsettling derailment of emotion. It was, perhaps, a mercy that, for practical reasons, the proposed insertion of Gibbons’ Drop, drop, slow tears (aka The Silver Swan) between the second and third movements did not happen.
All that said, the performances were generally of a very high standard. Luciana Mancini’s iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove voice provided beautifully expressive performances of Purcell’s Sweeter than Roses and Britten’s I know a bank. She is a consummate communicator, using words (a sensuous sibilant on ‘kiss’) and gesture to put over the material. It is sad that these were her only items; we were promised a piano – with which, she might have performed a few of Britten’s Purcell realizations, making for a more coherent programme – but, alas, this was not to be.
The Cardinall’s Music gave precise and well-blended accounts of the Tavener (from the gallery), and the Gibbons. Particularly engaging, though, were their second-half renditions of three rarely-performed partsongs by Frank Bridge, to which they brought subtlety and intelligence to point up the pieces’ contrasting natures: the gentle pastorality of Autumn, the high-Victorian style of Music, when soft voices die and the busy wittiness of The Bee.
O/Modǝrnt themselves (packing the stage with 16 string players) turned in some intense and memorable performances. The opening Purcell Overture in G-minor was perhaps a tad heavy (the modern instruments – including two basses and three cellos – making for a stodgier texture than is usual in these ‘authentic’-sound times), and the sole continuo instrument, a theorbo, seemed inaudibly out of place, but the performance expressed, nonetheless, a refreshing assertiveness. The three movements of the Elgar were throbbing with Edwardian sensibility, lush string tone, and a rich underpinning from the lower instruments (this is where the basses and cellos came into their own). The ensemble was directed from the lead violin by Hugo Ticciati, and it is clear that he absolutely ‘gets’ the quintessentially English sound of Elgar. He should, however, trust his players more; they are well attuned to each other, and Ticciati’s loud sniffs for the upbeats (and emotionally-charged moments) are neither necessary nor pleasant.
The group’s improvisation on Purcell’s A New Ground in E minor was interesting exercise (involving simultaneous whistling and overtone-humming), but not entirely satisfying. They brought, however, the same concentration and understanding to bear on Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge as they did for the Elgar, subtly demonstrating the different effects of the light touch of a bow (quiet but focused lyricism versus the deliberate production of harmonics in the Romance and Moto perpetuo), as well as some barnstorming martellato playing – resulting in a stirring volume of sound from such a small number of instruments – in the galumphing March and the energetic Bourée classique.