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A more measured mood of sober intensity coloured the final work of the evening, In the dark times there will also be singing (1994), settings of Bertolt Brecht for soprano and baritone, performed with tonal warmth and telling expression by Vivienne Bellos and Bryan Kesselman, with the composer at the piano. Dawes's extensive work as a theatre and film composer includes several incidental scores of Brecht plays, and his music for the Caucasian Chalk Circle and Edward II are recognised scores for those plays held by the Brecht Estate in Berlin. The cycle is dedicated to John Perry, the theatre director with whom Dawes worked in the 1990s, whose reading of the three poems as part of a contextual session for the actors inspired Dawes to set them to music.

The cycle is framed by the 'Motto' poem, In the dark times, which is itself preceded by a chilling and moving piano introduction, low bass clusters alternating with ever higher acerbic chords that reach as if with growing angst into the threatening silence, then recede again into the calm. In general the harmony has echoes of Britten or Rubbra, and yet also Russian composers like Shostakovich and Schnittke, and the text setting, always lucidly audible, is often compelling, with Dawes's own voice strongly evident in the lyrical contours. The opening setting of 'In the dark times / Will there also be singing?' is beautifully portrayed by the melismatic setting of the words dark and singing, and the sequential emphasis of the answer to the question, Yes. Yet it is the shifting textures and duet dialogue, colourfully projected by Vivienne Bellos and Bryan Kesselman, that brings the poetry alive.

The first song is stanzaic, with its alternating baritone and soprano lines leading to a final refrain set as a mellifluous contrapuntal duet: 'So passed my time which had been given to me on earth / I came to the cities in a time of disorder'. The second song, even more intense, was coloured by the piano's ostinato oscillating chords and trills, and two contrasting textures with the voices either in duet or individually and painting certain words evocatively, such as injustice and contorts (as in 'Hatred / Contorts the features'). The music moves to a climax at a declamatory final stanza with Dawes' dense, biting harmonic idiom preparing the return of the powerful motto song and solo piano epilogue, its utterance by now conveying moods of despair and hope.

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Copyright © 26 May 2004 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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