Infinity gradient; Bluebeard’s Castle – review

<span>Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, with director Peter Whelan ‘all but dancing’, Israel Handel will perform Egypt at Saint Martin in the Fields.</span>Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell</span> span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/” data – src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, with director Peter Whelan ‘all but dancing’, will perform Handel’s Israel in Egypt at St Martin-in-the-Fields.Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

Peter Whelan is a household name among musicians. There is someone who is an excellent bassoonist, soloist and orchestra principal. Another program is the harpist who unearths neglected works, particularly from 18th century Dublin and Edinburgh, and recreates them for performance and recording. Then there is Peter Whelan, artistic director of the Irish Baroque Orchestra, director of the Irish National Opera and founder of the period instrument Ensemble Marsyas. Versatile is an inadequate description of this multi-talented Irish musician who is, in all of these cases, the same person.

Whelan is now on a central European tour, conducting Handel’s Israel in Egypt, with the Monteverdi Choir, aged 60 this year, and with the English Baroque Soloists (not surprisingly, he played bassoon). Last week they were in London, at St Martin-in-the-Fields. This lively double choral work, first performed in 1739, could hardly be more exciting. The biblical epic shows Handel borrowing from himself as well as other composers, and in his most inventive way, with musical representations of the planes of flies, lice and locusts; frogs, hail, darkness and, after bloodshed, redemption.

Ranked as one of the world’s finest choral ensembles, John Eliot Gardiner founded the Monteverdi Choir, whose name remains indelibly linked to its rigorous standards of musical training and achievement. Now 80, he is absent from directing. (An announcement from the organization, made before the tour, indicates that he hopes to return to the scene later in the year.) Whelan must navigate the line between respecting Gardiner and achieving it independently. Conducting from the keyboard, he was mostly on his feet, all but dancing from start to finish. The playing of the orchestras was triumphant as well as delicate, and the choral work was impressive. The soloists – Nick Pritchard, Julia Doyle, Amy Wood, James Hall and Jack Comerford – were very successful but the choir took the greatest honours: every word to be heard, every note, even when they were roar, bang in tune.

Just as we admit that the world could be non-binary, the New York composer comes in binary. Tristan Perich (b.1982) for its composition Infinity gradient for organ and 100 speakers (2021). Given its UK premiere last weekend by the organist James McVinnie – at the start of his year-long residency at London’s Southbank Center and part of the Festival Hall Festival’s 70th anniversary organ procession – this hour-long work is based on binary principles divided by organ pipes and 1-bit sound. In simple terms, this means on or off, speak or remain silent. Discussions between McVinnie and Perich beforehand were full of talk of oscillations and long waves, but the work itself turned out to be human and experiential.

McVinnie was alone at the organ, with 100 speakers of various sizes, custom-made by Perich, set up across the stage behind him, the largest of which suggested a strange early warning system. On first listen, it was difficult to ascertain exactly what the interplay of the nine movements was between organic and electronic, but the entire epic enterprise was mesmeric in its impact and sonic variety, now like Vidor’s Toccata on steroids, now low dental drill, now carousel sinking. Some members of the audience gasped in despair but most sat in rapt attention. It was furious and huge, at its top, after an almost non-stop upward glissando, the foundation of the building seemed to shake. Maybe it was just our eardrums.

English National Opera has scheduled two performances, conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, sung in Hungarian, of Béla Bartók’s short two-hand opera Bluebeard Castle, an early 20th century masterpiece. When Allison Cook, due to sing Judith, canceled due to illness, the whole event could have collapsed. Lately announced, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston entered, making her long overdue company debut singing with fierce intelligence and stunning beauty.

While standing, static, on one side of the stage, she nevertheless performed a huge, chilling drama, which was never surpassed by the orchestra, which gave rise to the terrible intensity and grandeur of the score after a tentative beginning. John Relyea sang the title role – noble, emotionally occluded, allowing hints of self-awareness of the cruelty of his ex-wife, here a whole harem of silent brides veiled in white. Described by Joe Hill-Gibbins as a semi-stage, it was set around a long table, with props to convey the secrets behind each door: flowers, gold showers, baby dolls. Perhaps the focus was being undermined by circumstances, torn apart as we watched the formidable Johnston and the equally magnetic Lord Crispin (ENO’s staff director), walk the role of Judith thoughtfully and charmingly. But the evening gathered a fiery energy of its own, and the mystery of the work enlightened our senses.

Star ratings (out of five)
Israel in Egypt
James McVinnie & Tristan Perich: Infinity Gradient
Bluebeard Castle ★★★★

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