The Telling, Worthing - review

Final bow - Teresa Banham, Leah Stuttard, Clare Norburn, Ariane Prussner (by Stephen Goodger)
Final bow - Teresa Banham, Leah Stuttard, Clare Norburn, Ariane Prussner (by Stephen Goodger)

REVIEW by Richard Amey

Early Music: The Telling in ‘Vision – the Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen’ at St Paul’s Worthing on Thursday 21 March (7.30pm)

Only three months since the first professional Early Music performance of modern times in the town, Worthing’s second event launched the project onto the world map. London medieval group The Telling’s touring concert-play ‘Vision – the Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen’ was live-streamed on the global internet last Thursday.

It was one of more than 100 concerts across the continent on European Early Music Day, alongside nine other UK events in this annual celebration, which is positioned by its French organisers on March 21, the first day of spring and JS Bach’s birthday. Spanish pioneer of Early Music conducting and viol ensemble revival Jordi Savall says: “It’s so important to join forces to support the music of earlier ages, and the performers and organisers who disseminate it.”

Almost overnight, Worthing’s International Interview Concerts have joined the disseminators. They combined with their home venue St Paul’s Worthing in presenting the show with Clare Norburn, singer and leader of The Telling and the playwright of ‘Vision’. Zen Grisdale of London’s Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment filmed the video live stream from behind a near full-house audience.

Production values were serious. TV primetime actress Teresa Banham played Norburn’s Hildegard as she relives the feelings of a Rhineland medieval polymath slowly gouging just enough peepholes through the brick wall of patriarchal medieval Europe to make her innovations felt and her political, scientific and philosophical experience sought after by the all-powerful rulers, clergy and even the pontiff himself.

Pitch Black of Chichester carried out Natalie Rowland’s lighting design, and bearing the simple costuming of Madeleine Edis alongside Banham and Norburn were fellow singers Ariane Prussner The Telling’s Hanoverian lower voice, and one of their three on-tap harpists, Leah Stuttard, from Blackburn.

Over six years, The International Interview Concerts (IICs) have developed their innovatively formatted piano-based concerts at St Paul’s. Alongside this now, with The Telling they have begun extending westwards and popularising the medieval, renaissance and baroque interest nurtured by Brighton Early Music Festival. Norburn is the recently departed co-founder of BREMF now specialising in writing for radio and live audiences her concert-plays which explore significant historical musical figures.

New audience is being created by this expanding joint thrust in entertainment provision by the IICs, Worthing’s musical public taste and appetite is broadening around its core pair of professional and amateur/semi-professional orchestras, respectively the WSO and the WPO, and its numerous choirs. New audience is being created.

Bar some established Hildegard discoverers, most were new audience at St Paul’s last Thursday. Attracting them was their stirred fascination and desire to acquaint with the breathtaking scope of the vision-driven abbess’ talent and achievement, which culminated in her fame-securing and highly distinctive poetry, songs and devotional chants which make her currently the West’s most widely-heard female composer.

As The Telling team went out on the move, singing around, among and in front of the listeners, then musically addressing Hildegard herself, disappearing then reappearing, an atmosphere of fluctuating light and sound took shape. Haunting the air was the vocal blend of Norburn and Prussner, with tonal contrast already remarked on by BBC Music Magazine as individually ‘silvery and wine-dark’ in reviewing their album ‘Gardens of Delight’ on the eve of European Early Music Day.

This blend was elaborated by their starkly engaging solos. The characteristic virtuosic and uninhibited leaping lines Hildegard writes for the top voice framed Norburn’s lately increased expressive range in altitude, power and dynamics. Several times she thrilled the listener in this exulting. Then after such ecstasy Prussner would emerge from the darkness to sing something smooth and glowing, yet still liquidly agile.

All seemed alive with the ‘Living Light’ – Hildegard’s name for her opened-eyed visions and sights.

The quietness, frequently exploding into an upward-climbing freedom from Gregorian gravity, projected often potently by Norburn, frequently singing from memory, are easily seen as the artistic expression of Hildegard’s exasperation and railings against her adversities as well as of her joy in the inspirations of the natural world and the rewards of her faith.

Teresa Banham as Hildegard is some 30 years younger than the fading age of woman she was depicting but this sits logically with her character’s struggles as a younger woman that were being relived. Banham drew in the audience from her first moment on stage and highlighted Hildegard’s personal and emotional vulnerability despite her resolve, and her sometimes faltering confidence beneath the powerhouse breadth and obligations of her gifts.

Leah Stuttard’s medieval harp role acts towards the vocal lines as prompter, commentator, responsive partner and imitator, as well as a pervasive backdrop in an aural tapestry which flowers into sensual colour while seeming to stay enigmatically mono-tonal. Twice she plays alone, and then backcloths Hildegard’s speaking, and it is a well-judged surprise when Stuttard later suddenly sings for the first time, more fragile, alone with a handbell Prussner later also employs.

In the excellent programme notes, Norburn confides that one concert-play cannot not cover the entire extraordinary expanse of Hildegard’s human presence, and she decided to write more about the psychological impacts of Hildegard’s predicament. Translations of the sung Latin texts were included – such as:

“Noblest green viridity, rooted in the sun and in the clear bright calm; you shine within a wheel, no earthly excellence can comprehend . . . ”

“For the beautiful flower flowered forth from you, which gave all thirsty flowers their perfume. And they have radiated brightness anew in fresh greenness . . .”

“O strength of Wisdom who, circling, circled, enclosing all in on one life-giving path, you have three wings: one soars to the heights, one distils its essence upon the earth, the third is everywhere.”

The performers finally processed, singing, out of the building, melting into the silence all machinery and misery seems to deny us. Following a refreshments interval, the informal and entertaining Q&A session included submitted audience questions. We are into our own new Age of Enlightenment.

Richard Amey

The ‘Vision’ concert video can be viewed, with others, at the ‘earlymusicday.eu’ website on the Concerts Live page www.earlymusicday.eu/streamings-2019/

or alone on The Telling Music Facebook page

https://www.facebook.com/thetellingmusic/videos/2300152373590596/

The Telling look set to return on October 13 with another of the group’s Empowered Women Trilogy, ‘Unsung Heroine’.

Next International Interview Concert at St Paul’s on Sunday July 7 at 4pm (tickets on sale late May): ‘Images In Sound’: solo pianists Anna Bulkina (Russia) and Francesco Comito (Italy) perform while invited artists paint. Music – Etudes Tableaux Op 39 (Rachmaninov) and Pictures At An Exhibition (Mussorgsky).

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