Review: Watching Over You

First published in the Guardian on 20 May, 2015

Watching Over You, a new song cycle by composer Rory Boyle setting texts by Dilys Rose, is a hushed and intimate account of new motherhood. Seven poems share the first-person thoughts of a woman shortly before, during and just after childbirth. The language is unambiguous, occasionally simplistic; there are plain descriptions of trepidation, doubt, bafflement, gushing tenderness. Boyle treats the verse with carefully luminous textures, leaving plenty of room for the words to resonate and painting warm colours with vibraphones, low flutes and lapping violins. Red Note Ensemble played it all sensitively under conductor Jean-Claude Picard.

On paper, the songs of Watching Over You might look underwhelming; what made this premiere so deeply touching was the heartrending delivery of its dedicatee and mezzo soprano soloist, Karen Cargill. She’s a powerful Wagnerian with a voice that can envelop the Met or Covent Garden, but her quiet, stripped-back control was utterly breathtaking to hear up close. In a sense, Boyle’s writing is a love song to Cargill’s singing: all those long, voluptuous lines and gentle swoops make her voice simply glow. What’s more, she has a rare gift for conveying emotion that feels immediate, unforced and frank — it would have been worth coming to hear her sing the fifth song alone, a cooing lullaby. She is a mother herself; lucky the child who gets this before bed.

The other work on the programme was Janacek’s ardent string quartet Intimate Letters, said by the composer to have been “written in fire” and played here by Red Note with focus and brawn. It was tricky to pick out the important inner lines in this wallowy acoustic but no matter; the ensemble, normally immersed in contemporary music, really revelled in Janacek’s most inventive, unbridled sounds.