BBC Music Magazine
The art of melodrama in its original sense, as a spoken text accompanied by music, is alive and well. Kudos to the quartet of Counterpoise for commissioning John Casken and David Matthews. Casken's choice is an unfinished Pushkin poem about Cleopatra previously set – also as a melodrama, with precisely notated Russian declamation – by Prokofiev (perhaps the group's ever enterprising pianist-arranger Iain Farrington could transcribe that too?).
DM Thomas' completion continues the saucy-sadistic streak, well delivered by Donald Maxwell, but the music misses a crucial sensuality, despite fine solos for the three lovers doomed to die for a night of pleasure with the Egyptian queen.
David Matthews' racier narrative of Diana and Actaeon is a brilliant concert-hall entertainment with an ideal role of Eleanor Bron. The classical transformations continue in Britten's Six Metamorphoses, so perfectly written for oboe that Kyle Horch's exquisite soprano saxophone playing only succeeds in getting the original timbre out of my head once – in 'Narcissus'. Farrington's Britten cabaret arrangements, though, sound more like authentic dance-band music than the originals. It's a pity song and melodrama texts are not included, nor player identities more clearly spelled out.
The title of this debut disc from the Counterpoise ensemble comes from its opening work, John Casken's Deadly Pleasures, a setting of Pushkin's poem Egyptian Nights as translated and completed by DM Thomas. And what a fascinating, ear-catching, image-conjuring work it is. Casken has dramatically embraced and revivified the technique of melodrama, the musical form that came into being in the mid-18th century and which deploys a spoken voice against an instrumental backcloth.
Backcloth is in fact too anodyne a word to describe what Casken does here, for the words of this lubricious tale of Cleopatra and her three one-night stands inspire music that closely weaves itself into the fabric of the action, sometimes forming sensuous tendrils of sound, at others creating an atmosphere of eerie apprehension and, when Cleopatra's first bedmate is slaughtered at dawn, punctuating the score with the ominous thud of the falling axe. At almost half an hour this is a substantial work but it is not a minute too long; its narrative thread is vividly characterised and luxuriantly enunciated by Donald Maxwell, and Counterpoise's performance is strikingly dynamic.
David Matthews's Actaeon, to a text by Ted Hughes after Ovid, is an astutely chosen companion piece, another melodrama, this time with Eleanor Bron as the mellifluous, animated, subtly inflected narrator in a work that distils Actaeon's plight and flight with vibrant force and focus. In these works and the two by Britten Counterpoise come across as an ensemble at the top of their game.
International Record Review
Mixed ensembles were a mainstay of the new music scene in the 1970s and 1980s (indeed, barely a week went by without one or another appearing at the Purcell Room or Institute of Contemporary Arts), but had become relatively scarce by the turn of the present century. So all credit to groups such as Counterpoise – with its singular line-up of saxophone, trumpet, violin and piano – for building on the repertoire of its predecessors as well as undertaking new commissions, two of which are featured on this engaging debut disc from Deux-Elles.
Both works are what might be called 'melodramas', though the combination of speaker and ensemble has been deployed in distinctive and contrasted ways. In Deadly Pleasures, John Casken draws on Pushkin's unfinished satiric poem Egyptian Nights, as completed in like fashion by D.M. Thomas, where Cleopatra offers to spend the night with any man who is prepared to die the next morning: thus follow the Soldier Flavius (trumpet), aesthete Kriton (violin) and a 'nameless youth' (saxophone) who succeeds in having his cake and eating it. Casken treats the whole with regard for its evocative overtones and drily humorous asides, though it helps to have a narrator of the eloquence and insight of Donald Maxwell, whose subtle variations in emphasis bring out the range of nuance from Thomas' insinuating text.
Very different in its approach is Actaeon in which David Matthews indulges his lifelong love of classics by setting that portion of Ovid's Metamorphoses – here in Ted Hughes' eloquent translation – which tells of the hunter Actaeon, who, spying on the goddess Diana while bathing, is turned into a stag, then pursued by his hounds in a chase that results in his capture and dismemberment. Matthews' score evinces his familiar hallmarks – the music unfolding on an abstract as well as illustrative level, and culminating in a pastorale which commemorates the hapless protagonist in suitably elegiac terms. From the outset, the piece was planned with the narration of Eleanor Bron in mind, and her forceful but never grating tones readily draw the listener into this lucid rendering of one of the most poignant myths.
As to the remaining pieces, Britten's Six Metamorphoses After Ovid was conceived for oboe yet assumes an added plangency when transferred to saxophone, while the Cabaret Suite is not – as might have been expected – a transcription of the composer's Cabaret Songs but a selection and arrangement by Iain Farrington of separate numbers having been taken from incidental music scores written either side of the Second World War. The result is this brief and entertaining suite which would round off almost any programme in appropriate style.
Texts are available at www.counterpoise.org.uk but the clarity of recording readily ensures their intelligibility, with Barry Millington's informative notes enhanced by reproductions of Titian and Cabanel included in the booklet and on the rear inlay. Highly recommended, in the hope that more of Counterpoise's repertoire will be finding its way onto disc in due course.
Counterpoise is an unusual though vital ensemble (violin, saxophone, trumpet and piano), favouring melodrama, that enlists speakers as soloists. In the two specially written works, John Casken's Deadly Pleasures and David Matthews's Actaeon – which, with Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid (played to good effect on soprano saxophone, rather than oboe), form this disc's ingenious look at mythology – Donald Maxwell recites DM Thomas's lines (after Pushkin) about Cleopatra and her lovers in the former, while Eleanor Bron animates Ted Hughes's (after Ovid) in the other. Both scores come over as colourful and alert.
The ensemble Counterpoise, founded in 2008 using a combination of trumpet, piano, saxophone and violin, has nurtured the neglected medium of melodrama, meaning spoken narration with musical accompaniment – not an easy genre but made fascinating by powerful texts and excellent narrators, quite aside from the quality of the music. This debut disc includes two of the group's commissions. Deadly Pleasures, by John Casken, uses a Pushkin tale about the bloodthirsty lusts of Cleopatra as told by DM Thomas. Actaeon, by David Matthews, takes a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses in the version by Ted Hughes. Donald Maxwell and Eleanor Bron know exactly how to unite music and text as one. Britten's Cabaret Suite provides lively contrast.