On a Darkling Plain

Joel-Allison

Joel Allison

The Talisker Players latest offering is a concert titled On a Darkling Plain.  It’s an ambitious program of 20th and 21st century music interspersed, in the Talisker manner, with selected texts read (very expressively) by Stewart Arnott.

It kicks off with Samuel Barber’s 1931 setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.  It’s a dark and evocative piece for a 21 year old and was sensitively performed by baritone Joel Allison supported by violinists Michelle Ordorico and Andrew Chung, Talisker music director Mary McGeer on viola and Laura Jones on cello.  Allison is very young and hasn’t been seen much in Toronto but he seems to have the hallmarks of a lieder singer.  He’s expressive and attentive to the text, has an attractive voice but can summon up a surprising amount of volume when he needs it.  I was impressed.

ilana zarankin

Ilana Zarankin

Next up was Ilana Zarankin with Shostakovich’s to texts by Alexander Blok for soprano and piano trio.  It’s typical Shostakovich combining great lyricism with considerable violence.  It’s also quite sparsely scored with often only one instrument accompanying the singer which suited Zarankin’s pretty but somewhat light voice.  She sang very  expressively but perhaps couldn’t quite summon up the vocal brutality needed at times.  Indeed only pianist Peter Longworth seemed entirely comfortable with that aspect of things.Next up was Ilana Zarankin with Shostakovich’s Seven Romances to texts by Alexander Blok for soprano and piano trio.  It’s typical Shostakovich combining great lyricism with considerable violence.  It’s also quite sparsely scored with often only one instrument accompanying the singer which suited Zarankin’s pretty but somewhat light voice.  She sang very  expressively but perhaps couldn’t quite summon up the vocal brutality needed at times.  Indeed only pianist Peter Longworth seemed entirely comfortable with that aspect of things.

After the interval we started with a new piece;The Cloths of Heaven by Juliet Hess to texts by W.B. Yeats.  Scored for baritone, violin, viola, cello, piano, flute (Anne Thompson) and oboe (Victoria Ellis Hathaway) this is a richly textured and quite playful piece, rather different in mood from the two dark works of the first half.  In some ways it’s almost programmatic with, for example, pizzicato strings, representing the prowling cat in The Cat and the Moon.  Allison again impressed with a combination of lyricism and power.

Zarankin’s second piece was John Tavener’s Akhmatova Songs; very dark and very Russian texts with Tavener’s signature anguished minimalism scored here for soprano and string quartet.  For the most part Tavener seemed a better fit for Zarankin than Shostakovich showing off the beauty of her voice everywhere except a couple of cruelly high passages where her intonation went a little awry.  Nicely done.

The final piece was Walford Davies’ setting of Browning’s Prospice for baritone and string quartet.  This was a good fit for Allison’s Anglican choral background sounding like so much mid 20th century English music in the Elgar tradition and setting a Browning piece in his heroic Christian mood. Allison was idiomatic and that isn’t always the case with this sort of work.

It’s an interesting mix of pieces and quite a bold selection really for which the Talisker programmers deserve credit.  You can catch it again tonight at Trinity St. Paul’s at 8pm.

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