Classical review: Eight Songs For A Mad King, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

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You have to be a little mad to stage Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ seminal music theatre piece Eight Songs for a Mad King. Or at least possess the daring spirit required to tackle the parodic eccentricity and wild musical theatricality that marks it out as a virtuosic tour de force.

Eight Songs For A Mad King

Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Star rating: * * * * *

No worries there, given the track record of the versatile and imaginative Hebrides Ensemble, for whom predictability and run-of-the-mill programming are anathema, let alone their previous successes with Max’s music theatre works. This week’s tour of Eight Songs opened last night, and true to Hebrides’ form, the message was simply this: don’t miss it.

It seems invidious to single out baritone Marcus Farnsworth, who grasped the central role of King George III with all the tortuous magnetism it calls for. But it’s a role that very few can master, given its stratospheric vocal histrionics, and a weird psychological intensity that wouldn’t be out of place in Samuel Beckett.

Farnsworth triumphed in every way, not least his ability to capture the sung quality of the role. Of all the performances I’ve heard of this work, this was the most moving, the most human, the most penetrating.

But let’s not forget the musicians, who are very much part of the action, both physically as the (symbolically) caged birds in the King’s warped mind, and musically, bringing Max’s firework of a score to life.

And if this half-hour work is, itself, problematic to stage, finding something to go with is equally so. Hebrides’ solution was to open with a sequence of music by Iannis Xenakis, Colin Matthews, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin and Thomas Adès that, knitted together as a continuous stream of thought, magically set the scene.