City of London Festival, Drapers’ Hall, London – review

Going to events in the City of London Festival is a double pleasure, as the venues are as much a draw as the music. The festival has traditionally focused on the city’s historic livery halls and churches, which host the majority of the concerts, but this year it is also looking further afield for inspiration.

The theme of the 2013 festival is conflict and resolution. This extends to other walled cities in Europe and beyond, in particular Derry-Londonderry, which is celebrating City of Culture status this year – an opportunity to mark the unique link created in 1613 when the Irish city received the finance to build its city walls from the livery companies of the City of London.

These various interests were rolled together in a new commission for the festival’s opening night. Trees, Walls, Cities is a collaborative song cycle for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, which brings together composers and poets from eight walled cities, most with some history of internal conflict. Styles and content vary wildly, and it fell to Nigel Osborne to compose linking music to try and hold the whole package together.

At nearly an hour the resulting work is too long, mainly because there has been no single creative hand to shape it. But there were some individual voices at work: Christopher Norby (Derry-Londonderry) and Jocelyn Pook (London) employing simple means to deliver complex messages; Theo Verbey (Utrecht) and Habib Shehadeh Hanna (Jerusalem) mining older musical styles; Isidora Zebeljan (Dubrovnik) setting folk rhythms spinning; Soren Nils Eichberg (Berlin) and Gerald Resch (Vienna) turning to expressionist word settings; and, going one step further, Yannis Kyriakides (Nicosia) offering little more than a halo of music while the four members of the Brodsky Quartet recited Mehmet Yashin’s very personal poem “Walls have Ears”. It should not have worked, but the diversity of the songs only added to the cumulative effect.

Mezzo Lore Lixenberg made a heroic job of surmounting the cycle’s far-flung technical demands and was earlier the sensitive soloist in the impressionist Verlaine settings of Philip Hammond’s Chanson d’automne. The Brodskys also gave a wholehearted performance of Elgar’s barnstorming Piano Quintet – altogether an indigestible programme, but the festival is off to an ambitious start.

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