Regeneration is currently at the heart of everything that goes on inside the beautifully preserved Charlton House. Built between 1607 and 1612 by Sir Adam Newton, the building and its grounds remain a fine example of Jacobean domestic architecture. That the house has been organising regular lunchtime concerts to showcase students from London’s most eminent conservatoires adds further plumage to its cap.

Charlton House
Charlton House

Friday’s lunchtime concert was part of the Reflections and Reactions series curated by pianist and chamber musician Amber Rainey. Focusing on the output of the group of French composers known as “Les Six”, six performers associated with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama delivered an accomplished and sensitively constructed programme. While Rainey’s spoken introduction was certainly a laudable effort, the potted summary of the initiation of Les Six was a little deficient in nuanced observations and perhaps too indebted to Wikipedia. Despite this, her instinct to assemble such a concert in the old library was a sound one: with wooden panelling and an upper balcony teeming with books, the space was evocative of the private spaces in which these works would have been heard during the aftermath of the First World War.

Les Six were a group of French composers working in Montparnasse predominantly during the 1920s. Their name is a play on musician Mily Balakirev’s “The Five”, a group of Russian nationalist composers that included Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky and César Cui. It was the eccentric French composer Erik Satie who first had the idea for marshalling a group of composers in France and created les nouveaux jeunes. However, Satie soon abandoned the group and its remaining artists were christened Les Six by the critic Henri Collet. The work of its members – Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre – cannot easily be homogenised, but their differing traits are commonly seen as reactions against the legacies of Richard Wagner and Claude Debussy in an attempt to forge a style of music that would celebrate the discrete details of everyday life.

The most interesting feature of this programme was undoubtedly the decision to interweave sections of Durey’s Le Bestiaire (1919) amongst portions of song cycles by the other composers. Le Bestiaire comprises 25 settings of texts about animals by the writer Guillaume Apollinaire. Sopranos Julia Sitkovetsky and Jenavieve Moore gave compelling performances of these minute musical visions where the unpredictable movements of the animals are alluded to with precarious motivic interplay and distinctive chromaticism.

The extracts from Auric’s Poèmes de Paul Eluard (1940–48) and Milhaud’s Poèmes Juifs Op. 34 (1916) received outstanding performances from Bethan Langford (soprano) and Jenavieve Moore respectively. Langford’s majestic voice brought Auric’s alluring metaphors to life and reveled in the blanched harmonic process that lent an eerie tenor to lines such as “My dreams are the world, Clear and perpetual’”. The quiet control of Moore’s delivery was equally refreshing in the midst of Milhaud’s mystical polytonality: with “Myriads of stars are up in the sky / only one Star lights up my darkness” we saw Moore’s stillness eclipsed by a cluster of luminous modal notes from the piano.

Timothy Connor (baritone) successfully captured the indolence and clownishness of Apollinaire’s texts as set in Poulenc’s Banalités (1940). The performance perhaps smacked of the Duke from Verdi’s Rigoletto at times: the understated melancholy of “Sanglots” (which muses “Let us leave everything to the dead and let us hide our sobbing”) was lost as a result of this. Megan Quick (mezzo-soprano) also gave an accomplished performance of Honegger’s Six Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire (1915–17), celebrating the tiptoe-like humour of “Saltimbanques” (“acrobats”) with delightful results. Julia Sitkovetsky’s rendition of Tailleferre’s Six chansons françaises (1929) brought the programme to a lighthearted close.

If there were any doubts as to whether the old library’s new piano was a good investment, they will have been dispelled by Justin Snyder’s superb playing in this concert. It was unfortunate that the strangely encrypted programme booklet did not tell us which of the five singers sung each song cycle. However, with a little more organization and attention to detail, this unique venue will certainly become a hub for enterprising musical events.

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