Many composers would be delighted to be sharing the bill with Pergolesi, particularly if the ratio of programmed pieces were 2:1 in their favour. Judith Bingham combined composing and singing careers for many years, but she now concentrates solely on composing. However, she does – as she confessed in a YouTube interview – compose unconsciously in “breath lengths”. I had not heard this confession before attending the concert but was aware of a natural feel to the music.

Judith Bingham © Patrick Douglas-Hamilton
Judith Bingham
© Patrick Douglas-Hamilton

Based on the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer”, The Hythe was commissioned by JAM (the John Armitage Memorial Trust) in 2012 and is scored for eleven strings. Bingham’s own programme note described how the number eleven features throughout the score – not only in the number of players/parts but also in beat length and chord spacing. Certainly many of the chords, on first hearing, seemed to house as many notes. In this regard, I was fascinated by the musical language; if asked at any given moment if the piece were tonal, I’d have said that it was, but perhaps would have struggled to find “do” in a hurry. I find this musical territory gripping, where tonality is insecure rather than simply missing. The Red Note Strings, led by the imperturbable Mieko Kanno, and under the relaxed direction of Michael Bawtree, phrased this music beautifully. This was especially noticeable in contrapuntal passages where unanimity of phrasing bound the interpretation together as phrases moved through the ensemble. Peeking at the score later, I was amazed, given the density of what we’d heard, how beautifully simple the music looked; music I would very much like to hear again.

Had Pergolesi’s mother been at hand when the 26-year-old Giovanni retreated to a Franciscan monastery to compose his Stabat Mater, falling victim to tuberculosis, the resonance of this would surely have been too much to bear. From the text’s ten stanzas of trochaic verse, he composed twelve numbers, a mixture of solos and duets for soprano and alto. These roles were more than ably occupied by Claire Seaton and Andrew Radley respectively. Accompanied by the same string forces as The Hythe, with the addition of Thomas Wilkinson on the smaller of Greyfriar’s Kirk’s two organs, these singers gave a masterful performance of this touching work. Balance between ensemble and singers was excellent, as it was between the two singers – even although, occupying the ends of the ensemble’s horseshoe, they were around five metres apart.

Seaton seemed effortlessly to pluck high notes from the air, and this was all the more breathtaking when done quietly, such as in the duo “O quam tristis”. If you ever wondered whether peripheral vision takes in a conductor’s movement just behind you, then Andrew Radley’s rendition of “Fac ut portem” would have convinced you that this was the case. Its dramatic start–stop beginning is racked with the kind of tense drama which an early or late entry would ruin. Radley was spot on every time! A performance of this calibre makes it easy to see why this piece, first published in London thirteen years after the composer’s demise, became the most frequently printed work in the 18th century.

Bingham’s 2008 Jacob’s Ladder closed the concert. Also scored for eleven strings, the work features organ, very ably played by Thomas Wilkinson, who had participated in each of the JAM/Red Note concerts of 14–20 Feb. The organ used was a sizeable fraction of a tone lower than the smaller one employed in the Pergolesi, occasioning dramatic but impressively quick retuning of the strings. Once again dense harmonies prevailed in the opening movement, “Leaving Home Under a Cloud”. A descending scale of fierce yet jaunty pizzicato notes reverberated in the dark stained wooded vaults, before giving way to the reedy and flute-like tones of the organ. Wonderful colour combinations struck the ear. I imagined this dialogue to represent the cross words between Jacob and his brother Esau.

The following “Anxiety Dream”, although nominally a scherzo, seemed rich in Jungian overtones. “Entr’acte: Falling into a deep sleep”, while no lighter in mood than its predecessors, was certainly more calm, its organ phrases underpinned by still string chords. Mirroring the opening movement, ascending pizzicato opened the final, titular movement and soon gave way to some fine, virtuosic organ writing, wonderfully played by an infeasibly young-looking Thomas Wilkinson. One can only hope that this ladder, connecting Heaven and Earth, is more robust than the East Coast Line connecting London and Edinburgh – or not connecting them. Bingham had hoped to join the players and the players and audience for this concert but technical problems meant no trains were able to leave King’s Cross. I’m sure she would have been delighted with the fine interpretations of her music, and with the warm audience reaction. Perhaps another time.