Joby Talbot, as this Barbican concert demonstrated, is a talented curator as well as composer. His new cantata, A Sheen of Dew on Flowers, has the quality of a museum exhibition, guiding us through obscure poetic fragments by women from all over the world, with the aim of telling us something useful. But what? Independent Opera commissioned the work to celebrate the recent addition of Queen Victoria’s coronet to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection, and in its programme notes, it focused on the life of the queen. But that seems to constrict what these jewel-like texts have to say, about the universality of love, and its accompanying emotions, from that thrilling first encounter to bereavement.
Some of the texts in this collection date back several hundred years, yet their vivid imagery — sensitively translated by the American poet Jane Hirshfield — shocks us with its modernity. It’s easy to get swept up in the fervour of “True Love in every moment praises God”, by the 13th-century writer Mechthild of Magdeburg, who was a member of a semi-monastic lay order of women. It’s easy to appreciate the unflinching honesty of lines such as “What should I do with this body that lives stubbornly on?”, written, following a lover’s death, by the medieval Japanese court poet Izumi Shikibu.
And it’s easy, given the sensuousness of the texts, to see why Talbot selected them as his vehicle. His music capitalises on their myriad colours, as well drawing on his experience as a TV, film and ballet composer. Tuneful and predominantly tonal, it wraps itself around every word, producing an alluring sound effect for every metaphor, and building up to climaxes of considerable power. For all its theatricality, though, most of the musical interest lies in the vocal and percussion parts.
Which short-changed many core players of the Britten Sinfonia, who, earlier in the evening, had already been deprived of the chance to prove their mettle in Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 3, Scottish, owing to Natalie Murray Beale’s rather inhibited conducting. Still, Talbot’s music played directly into the hands of the Britten Sinfonia Voices and the brilliant soloists, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and baritone Tobias Greenhalgh, whose impassioned, vocally lustrous performances ensured that this world premiere made its mark.
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