This Richard Thomas Foundation concert at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room introduced us to two completely new works, and presented two slightly older pieces too for good measure. All were beautifully played by a top selection of performers, making for an excellent demonstration of the power of new music.

Hannah Kendall © Hannah Kendall / Chris Alexander Photography
Hannah Kendall
© Hannah Kendall / Chris Alexander Photography

Benjamin Britten’s third Canticle, Still falls the Rain (1954), is a dark setting of a dark poem. Strange, changeable lines for solo horn, more than a little suggestive of an air raid siren, alternate with intense, chromatic declarations of Edith Sitwell’s poem by the tenor. Images of the crucifixion intertwine with the poem’s setting – it’s subtitled “The raids, 1940. Night and dawn” – to curious, hypnotic effect. Britten reflects the final stanza’s note of optimism with a shift in texture: the piano drops out, and horn and tenor come together for the first time. Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano), Richard Watkins (horn) and Nicky Spence (tenor) caught the solemn, ritualistic tone of the canticle well, Spence coming into his own most of all in the dramatic penultimate stanza and the awed intonement of the closing lines.

On a very different note, Hannah Kendall’s new piece was about chess. The three movements of On the Chequer’d Field Array’d, for solo piano, depict the three stages of a chess game: the opening, the middlegame and the endgame. Hence, it moves from a frenetic, combative initial phase, through an engrossing but rather slow, methodical section, to something a little more decisive at the end. Without a score, any further commentary from me would be like a critique of a chess game from someone who doesn’t know the rules, but – as with watching a chess game – there was much to admire in the way of skill, precision and depth of thought. Pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen, apparently a close collaborator with Kendall in the creation of this piece, gave a dynamic, sensitive reading.

Charlotte Bray’s new song cycle Yellow Leaves was a similarly finely crafted composition, with the added attraction of a fascinating text. Setting 32 haiku-length “distillations” of Shakespeare’s sonnets over the course of nine songs, Yellow Leaves took us on an entrancing journey through a variety of moods and thoughts. Matthews-Owen gave another fine performance at the piano, and Claire Booth sang the soprano part with her typical sense of drama and poise. The vocal lines never quite took flight for me, their frequent hints of lyricism often tempered by the neatly constructed approach which seemed to inform the piece as a whole, but the intelligence of the composition was beyond doubt. The seductive, jazzy rhythmic ostinato of “While the bell tolls...” was a standout moment, but all nine songs made an absorbing whole.

Hornist Richard Watkins returned for the final programmed piece, Peter Maxwell Davies’ Sea Eagle, a graceful, majestic solo dating from 1982. It’s a virtuosic showpiece, with extremes of register, dynamic and tone, but despite taxing the soloist, the depiction of the titular sea eagle seemed effortless: full of an austere, otherworldly elegance. Watkins, Sea Eagle’s original dedicatee, delivered it with authority and an obvious deep affection. The performance encapsulated so many of the virtues of contemporary music which this concert championed overall: while it can be hard to grasp, there is so much about its precision and skill which makes it fascinating to hear and watch take place.

There was then a final return, not in the programme, from Spence and Matthews-Owen, in three folk song arrangements, bringing us back to Britten. While this was a charming coda to the evening, it didn’t displace the newer works from my mind. I left thinking about chess and leaves.

***11