The Last Letter

Nico Muhly’s The Last Letter is staged and interwoven with an intriguing and moving selection of texts by First World War German and English soldiers and their loved ones, interspersed with music and poetry written by composers and poets on both sides of the conflict.

We heard more anguished First World War evocations, particularly about the relationships between the men who marched away and the women they left behind, in an expertly assembled (by Kate Kennedy) Britten Sinfonia programme on Friday. Using two good narrators (Richard Pryal, kitted up in khaki, and Sophie Hunter), as well as the admirable baritone Jonathan McGovern, it intertwined two song cycles: Nico Muhly’s The Last Letter, in a new chamber-orchestra version, and The Western Playland by the tragically war-scarred Ivor Gurney.

Also in the mix was instrumental music by Ravel, Frederick Septimus Kelly and Rudi Stephan (the last two were casualties of the conflict), as well as Samuel Barber’s Adagio. That was written much later, but proved to be the perfect elegy to close the concert.

Sensitively directed by Thomas Gould, it was an event to savour for its airing of less often heard First World War literature (particularly by Vera Brittain and Helen Thomas, both of whom lost the men they loved) and for Muhly’s astringent settings of hard-hitting letters by other women angry at the conflict’s impact on their families. It wasn’t just soldiers whose lives were ruined.

Richard Morrison, The Times, 12 November 2018

The Barbican Centre’s For the Fallen commemorations continued with this varied and thought-provoking programme, The Last Letter, which interweaved vocal and instrumental music with poems and prose, and focused on relationships – between husband and wife, fellow soldiers, young men and their homelands – disrupted by war.

Devised by Dr Kate Kennedy – who is the Weinrebe Research Fellow in Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford – and performed in Milton Court Concert Hall by the Britten Sinfonia, baritone Jonathan McGovern and narrators Sophie Hunter and Richard Pryal – the programme represented, in Kennedy’s words, a ‘re-thinking and re-imagining’ of the First World War: a ‘nuanced’ picture allowing us to hear a ‘multiplicity of voices’ and which ‘put the composers of the war side by side with the writers, both male and female’.

It was certainly a diverse programme, with two musical works – the five songs which form Nico Muhly’s The Last Letter (2015), here performed for the first time in an arrangement for chamber orchestra, and five songs from Ivor Gurney’s settings of Housman,  The Western Playland (1919, pub. 1926) – forming the backbone around which assorted poems, letters, prose fragments and other musical items were arrayed.

Claire Seymour, Opera Today, 11 November 2018

(Director and deviser Kate Kennedy, actors Sophie Hunter and Richard Pryal, composer Nico Muhly, ensemble Britten Sinfonia. Norwich, Barbican Centre and Saffron Hall, 2018)