“I relish a challenge,” Howard Skempton told his audience in process of introducing his setting of Coleridge’s epic, seven part poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for Music in the Round’s May Festival at the Crucible Studio.
Now that is a challenge – and a half, at least! And he has succeeded quite brilliantly, albeit not setting the whole thing. He reckons two-thirds of it, which looks about right.
A few stanzas here and there are clipped out in the first four parts, after which the slices are more substantial. However, unless you are scandalised Coleridge devotee, the cuts do not affect the narrative flow.
If anything, they tighten and enhance it with the aid of Skempton’s highly atmospheric, understated score and an imperious vocal performance from the person it was written for, baritone Roderick Williams.
With his God-given gift for communication, he draws you into the Mariner’s nightmare world with natural ease and without histrionics; just superb word painting and phrasing in his effortlessly smooth delivery of Skempton’s mildly declamatory vocal lines which never allow the voice to take full flight.
Similarly, there are no flourishes in the spare instrumental writing for an ensemble of two violins, viola, cello, double bass, horn and piano, here members of Ensemble 360.
More often than that not, only one or two instruments play at any time over the work’s duration of around 35 minutes, such as a subdued solo cello leading you into it and out at the end.
As a whole, the overall effect is hypnotic and, ultimately, the piece is shot through with poignancy.
Proceedings began a plangent account of Beethoven’s second Razumovsky quartet, Op 59 No 2, from Ensemble 360. Extremely well played throughout, the celebrated adagio was ideally paced after the tumult of the opening movement and with lots of fire and energy after it.