The Hebrides Ensemble delight in doing “different” musical programmes, performing works that are rarely heard, with small groups of high-quality musicians. Tonight at Greyfriars, we are offered an hour long early evening concert that is a little jewel. There are only five musicians, but of course they are all very good: William Conway, the artistic director, on the cello; Charlotte Ashton on the flute; Huw Watkins, piano; Zoë Beyers, violin; and Catherine Marwood, viola. However, the undoubted star of the evening is Irish soprano Ailish Tynan, who came to fame when she won the song prize at the 2003 Singer of the World competition in Cardiff. Since then, she has built a great international reputation, including performing with Covent Garden and Scottish Opera. So, it is a real treat to hear her singing in the lovely setting of Greyfriars Kirk to this small but very appreciative audience.
The concert begins with a work entitled Morpheus by English composer Rebecca Clarke, written in 1918 for viola and piano. Morpheus is the God of dreams and this is a suitably dreamy melodic work to open the concert with. This is followed by Scottish composer Judith Weir’s Nuits d’Afrique, composed in 2015 as a companion work to Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses (coming later in the programme). Weir, in her programme notes, suggests her songs are rather more authentic than Ravel’s, as the latter based his on poems by Évariste de Parny (who had never visited Madagascar), whereas she uses poems from contemporary African women that evoke village life in Africa. The songs are dedicated to Tynan, who gave them their world premiere, and tonight she sings them wonderfully with feeling and with humour.
The concert continues with a string trio by Jean Françaix written in 1933. It’s very melodic and very popular in France where it was performed at least 1500 times by the Pasquier Trio who commissioned the work. Apropos this work, Françaix commented: “is it a crime to pretend that ‘music is the art of combining sounds in a way which is agreeable to the ear’ and not the conjuring of a nightmare?” The concert continues with a violin solo by Beyers of American composer Rosalie Burrell’s Early Light, written in 2017, that tries to capture the spirit of early music through a 21st century lens.
The concert concludes with Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses, written in 1925, based on the poems of de Parny written in 1787. As noted earlier, it is doubtful whether the poet or indeed Ravel ever visited Madagascar so these are really attempts to evoke the atmosphere of Africa, but they also reflect the revolutionary spirit of the period in France and are against slavery. Indeed, the second song, Aoua, is an impassioned attack on slavery and colonialism—”beware of white men, dwellers of the shore”—which may be the first musical critique of colonialism. Again, Tynan sings the three songs beautifully, and the small audience give a very warm response; it is a perfect little concert to welcome in a summer evening.