Gavin Bryars first set eight of William Shakespeare’s most philosophical sonnets to music ten years ago for a joint commission by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North. Then they were performed in Stratford-upon-Avon; Bryars’ concert at Opera North’s base, inside Leeds Grand Theatre, finally brought them – and the Yorkshire-born composer – home.
Taking as his model madrigals and laude, vernacular sacred songs in the Italian medieval tradition, Bryars’ chamber treatments for an eight-piece ensemble, that included himself on double bass, interwove the poems at a stately tempo, emphasising their ruminative and slightly mournful nature.
Though the singing of soprano Sarah Dacey and tenor John Potter, sometimes in duet and at other times solo, was faultless, the readings by Irish rock singer Gavin Friday that preceded each one introduced a welcome theatricality to the performance, teasing out meaning from rather abstract language.
The combination of Alexandra-Maria Tchernakova’s piano, Christopher Bradley’s xylophone and James Woodrow’s acoustic guitar proved pleasing in Sonnet 128 while Bryars’ plucked bass notes imbued Sonnet 146 with a dark tone. Plangent piano and cimbalom added colour to Sonnet 55, and Sonnet 64 concluded with singers and narrator reprising lines from the poems in an elegiac coda.
Earlier in the programme Friday was in full-on expressive mode for his own interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 40, while Bryars shepherded the ensemble through his own compositions, It Never Rains, The North Shore and Flower of Friendship, all of which were slow, thoughtful and melodic and made interesting occasional use of Roger Heaton’s clarinet and bass clarinet.
Bryars’s double bass playing even lent a hint of jazz to Flower of Friendship, a piece that also featured exquisite passages from Morgan Goff on viola and Nick Cooper on cello.
The Goole-born composer has an extended history of collaborating with Opera North. On the evidence of this, long may that partnership continue.