Karen Cargill © K. K. Dundas
Karen Cargill
© K. K. Dundas
The Red Note Ensemble specialises in performing new contemporary music from Scotland and around the world, and was the perfect group to unveil Watching Over You, an impressive and captivating new collection of songs about early motherhood. Composer Rory Boyle wrote the piece especially for Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill, setting poems by Dilys Rose for a hand-picked small group of players. Both have worked together before, producing the intriguing full-length opera Kaspar Hauser, Child of Europe performed by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s students five years ago.

Karen Cargill is a busy international opera singer with a hectic schedule, so we were lucky to get a chance to hear her, a singer with a voice that can fill The Met, up close and personal in the intimate auditorium of the Queen’s Hall. Set for a string quartet with percussion, cor anglais, flute, bass clarinet and trumpet, Watching Over You is a set of seven songs starting with a newly pregnant mother nurturing her secret to anticipating the day the child goes to school. Dilys Rose’s gentle words perfectly describe the wonder of first pregnancy, the see-saw of elation and panic as birth approaches, and the joy of cradling a newborn.  A couple of darker poems deal with ‘Baby Blues’, and what happens “After the world and his wife have peered into the crib” as the reality of sleepless nights set in, and ‘The Night-Light’s Halo’ where the worries over a feverish child are expressed.  A gentle lullaby, ‘Tomorrow When You Wake’ and a more wistful look ahead ‘A First Time for Everything’ competes the cycle.

Boyle mixed musical textures according to the subject matter, and while there were dense harmonies, it never became angular or, for that matter, too sweetly lyrical. As the pregnancy was discovered, Cargill’s voice played against a solo vibraphone, then viola; a tick-tock in the percussion reminded us of the inevitable biological clock countdown to birth. I thought that the more troubled songs were the most successful: new-borns can be absolutely terrifying for new parents and Cargill expressed convincing exasperation, then utter helplessness as vigil is kept by the crib of a feverish child, Yann Ghiro’s haunting bass clarinet and Brian McGinley’s rattle-muted trumpet injecting an air of menace over bendy glissandi in the strings. Cargill had requested that there be some unaccompanied passages, and these were magical moments in the lullaby, her gloriously rich voice going husky-quiet. Although this was a small venue for this big voice, I had to follow the words in the programme to get the full references in the orchestration, of which there were many tiny delights, conductor Jean-Claude Picard giving precise pinpoint direction. However, Cargill’s skill at conveying emotion and her exquisite mezzo more than compensated, particularly when her voice opened up and filled the hall. She is a young mother herself, and one can completely imagine her lucky child being sung a lullaby.

To begin the evening, the string quartet played Janáček’s passionate Intimate Letters Quartet No 2. The work reflects the composer’s relationship with his muse Kamila Stösslová, which must have been turbulently passionate. Kamila was a married woman, 37 years his junior, and this quartet whirls us from their first meeting through the 700 letters he wrote to late life – the composer died before he could hear the premiere. Janáček gives the viola player Kamila’s voice, and Rachel Roberts was a star turn, playing so passionately that she lifted right off her seat on several occasions. The four movements are all restless, complex and dissonantly violent at times with only a few lyrical peaceful moments as any respite, yet it was wildly exciting to watch performed.  The viola comes in playing right next to the bridge ‘sul ponticello’ giving a vulnerable tone to Kamila’s voice, and it was interesting to see all the players using the range of bow positions from bridge to fingerboard.  The quartet took this wild searing music to heart, hairs flying from first violin Jackie Shave’s bow, and the group clearly enjoyed the chemistry of the piece.   It was like watching an elaborate dance as the players physically swayed with the music, constantly watching each other and exchanging mischievous grins as they tossed fragments of music to and fro.   

****1