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Review: a cocktail of Baltic and French

East and west London offer up some unusual venues for musical performance

New Statesman
Debussy & Ravel: Earth and Water. Image: Petersham Playhouse

A tale not quite of two cities, classical music in London has always been a rather lopsided affair. For a long while only the Barbican offered a lonely outpost beyond the historical strongholds of south and west, but with the opening of the King’s Place concert hall in Kings Cross and the growing cultural strength and diversity of East London, the map is slowly beginning to shift.

With a new season starting at the Petersham Playhouse, surely west London’s most beautiful boutique arts venue, and the return of the Spitalfields Music Festival to Shoreditch, this month has seen east and west London facing off in a serious battle for cultural supremacy

The annual Spitalfields Music Festival offers more than enough reason to venture beyond the Southbank, its churches, converted warehouses and municipal buildings reflecting the breadth of the programming. While experimental projects like Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison’s semi-improvised folk-opera Bow Down find a suitably edgy home in The Village Underground, more traditional programmes are housed in one of the area’s lovely galleried churches.

An evening of Baltic choral music from the Choir of Royal Holloway and the Britten Sinfonia threatened to strip the peeling paint from the walls of Shoreditch Church, so raw was its emotional delivery. Oxbridge chapel choirs have long had it all their own way, but under the direction of Rupert Gough, Royal Holloway have become a serious rival. Their chief strength is their musicality, balancing the dense, cluster-harmonies of this repertoire with the clarity that is essential if this deceptively simple music is to flower.

This precision, and the choir’s bass-anchored blend, were showcased beautifully in their opener – Vytautas Miskinis’s Time is Endless. There is a monumental, timeless quality to the music of this region, which while appealing but can lose its impact after too much exposure. Here we were saved from monotony by the syncopated rhythmic dissent of Rihards Dubra’s Oculus non vidit, and the fretful chromaticism of Arturs Maskats’s Lacrimosa.

A UK premiere – Tonu Korvits’s Kreek’s Notebook – offered the choir the chance to shape a larger-scale work, demanding the dynamic range and contrast that had been missing earlier. Folk-inspired, the work’s unmistakably Slavic melodies translate the region’s oppressive history into musical redemption, and made full use of Royal Holloway’s excellent lower voices – both mezzos and basses bringing depth to the palette. That the choir enjoys this repertoire is clear; that they understand its fragile directness is even more so.

From Baltic music in east London to French music in the west. Founded just last year, the Petersham Playhouse in Richmond has its home in the intimate grandeur of Petersham House’s ballroom. Growing swiftly, the Playhouse currently offers a quirky programme of both theatre and music, commissioning new works (such as opera Dr Quimpugh's Compendium of Peculiar Afflictions, stouring to Edinburgh this summer) and co-producing with venues that have included the Old Vic Tunnels.

To enter the playhouse you must first walk through a fantasy of a garden, flaming torches guiding the way. Every leafy nook is equipped with a bench, and every bench with a view. Making the most of this unique setting, Petersham Playhouse shows invite audiences into another world, working with their environment to create immersive, unapologetically lovely performances.

Devised and performed by pianist Martin Jacoby, Debussy and Ravel: Earth and Water is just such a show. Part lecture and part concert, it offers a gently informative stroll through the lives and music of two of the greats of 20th century music. Personable and relaxed, Jacoby makes an excellent tour guide, sharing his own personal journeys with this music as well as its official histories. On our chronological trip we take in the stylistic movements of Modernism as well as the personal developments of the composers, with performances both of classic favourites and more obscure repertoire.

While Claire de Lune exposed Jacoby’s tendency to overstatement, distorting Debussy’s delicate melody with undue emphasis, the pianist soon relaxed his grip. A rendition of Ravel’s playful Jeau d’eau was all metallic sheen, brilliant in colour and appropriately throwaway in its wit, while the inscrutable melancholy of the composer’s Oiseaux tristes introduced softer shades and some nicely-balanced doubt to proceedings.

Discussing rivalries, ambitions, and working practices (Debussy’s easy facility contrasting with Ravel, ever the grafter) we made our way to a finale in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. A challenge for even the most experienced concert pianists, it was a bold finish from the young Jacoby, who pulled off its three distinct moods with assurance, his passion for the music showing particularly in the Gothic chills of Le gibet.

We may not be in Proms season yet, but with such contrasting classical performances on offer, London audiences have no excuse not to escape the Olympic-crush of the centre this summer and explore their options, both to west and east. Patrician charm or indie musical chic – it’s your choice. 

Debussy and Ravel: Earth and Water, with Petersham Playhouse/Choir of Royal Holloway & Britten Sinfonia, ran at Shoreditch Church until 23rd June.