As part of Wigmore Hall’s ongoing series of streamed concerts, soprano Jennifer France joined Britten Sinfonia and composer-conductor Jack Sheen for a performance of Oliver Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh. The Knussen formed part of a brilliantly programmed concert that also featured Jürg Frey’s Circular Music No.2 and the premieres of a new work by Sheen and his three arrangements of Hildegard von Bingen.
The concert can be viewed again here until 17 February 2021
‘Running through the concert – structural pillars to hold this sonic trip together – are three works by von Bingen, arranged for the performance by Sheen himself. Soprano Jennifer France sings the composer’s gloriously arching melodies, while around her flute, clarinet, cello, cor anglais and – most striking – a vibraphone, softly stroked with brushes, create a luminous halo of resonance. Occasionally clarinet or cello steps forward – ghost doubles or echoes, mirroring the voice… The effect is mesmerising, bringing von Bingen into the 21st century and into touching distance of Frey’s Circular Music No.2 – a sequence of the softest sounds and textures suspended in time and space – and Sheen’s own Hollow propranolol séance. Named after a heart-slowing drug, this centrepiece is a reflection on lockdown isolation. The ticks and whirrs and rustles of our solitary lives are translated into an intricate shadow-play of sound: tingling cymbal buzz, muttering cello, fidgety stillness. It’s mesmerising stuff, but needs the bracing extremes and the fun of Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh – whose score calls for a cardboard box, a balloon and a pin in addition to its other instruments – to shake it up. Three short, half-remembered re-tellings of AA Milne’s stories are narrated in instrumental buzzes (those pesky bees) and high soprano cries, with a contrabass clarinet adding some cartoon menace. France is a gifted singing-actress, and it’s all in the eyes here, as she leads us through fragmented episodes of elation and excitement, coaxing us to keep up before lulling us into sleep in the final “Cloud Piece”. A musical goodnight story for adults.'
The Independent (Alexandra Coghlan), 19 January 2021