The Lichfield Festival is in full swing – and living just five minutes from the Cathedral, it’s hard not to feel you’re in the middle of something special even when you’re just walking to the shops! I’ll be producing a full round-up for The Arts Desk tomorrow, but meanwhile, since The Birmingham Post is experiencing difficulties posting my reviews of individual concerts to its website, I’ll be posting them here while the Festival is still under way. Even critics like to feel as if they’re part of something, after all…
(NB: No star ratings here – editors and PRs love ’em but critics hate them, and I’m no exception. If you really do need to attach a score to an artistic performance like it’s a spelling test or something, they can be seen in the print edition of The Birmingham Post, available now).
Is it really 22 years since The Juliet Letters? In 1993, we mistook it for crossover: there was a lot of it about back then. Elvis Costello’s song cycle with the Brodsky Quartet seemed to follow in the tradition of George Martin’s quartet arrangements for the Beatles, or Sinatra’s recordings with the Hollywood Quartet. But crucially, The Juliet Letters comprised entirely original music: the joint product of Costello’s art as a songwriter and the creative instincts of the individual Brodskys. The result?
Well, as we discovered in this late night Lichfield Festival concert with Jon Boden and the Sacconi Quartet the result was something that, two decades on, requires neither Costello nor the Brodskys in order to make a powerful impact. Inevitably, there were glitches: microphones never sit easily with chamber groups. Costello aficionados hoping to hear a slick reproduction of the studio album will have been disappointed.
For the rest of us, though, the rough edges made this music speak more directly – more passionately – than ever. Not that Boden’s light, softly-shaded tenor wasn’t ideally suited to the Sondheim-esque wit of numbers like Romeo’s Seance and This Offer is Unrepeatable.
But Boden and the Sacconis played off each other, seeming to find a shared intensity in the searching, Berg-like Dear Sweet Filthy World, making tone-colour match curdling harmonies, and transforming I Thought I’d Write To Juliet into a miniature music-drama. Boden’s expression as Robin Ashwell’s viola solo in Last Post sobbed out into the vast space of the darkened cathedral said it all: this was chamber music of a high order.