Stephen Sondheim: The Company Songs review – a magical experience at the Guggenheim

Claire Bloom: ballad, dance (third half)

This is the most widely performed show from the Sondheim oeuvre – in a far-flung place for a reason, because it is one of his most brilliantly simple pieces. This is about the process of grief – Claire’s, and probably Stephen’s, or perhaps it’s both – and listening to it in a standard ballad context is a way of ducking into the darkness. (Dance’s another whole story; the sounds range from the hymn-like Hand in Glove to the sweet-sounding I Hope I Get It).

Tom Hopley: harp, piano, accordion, vocals (second half)

This piece is focused in a very particular way – first around Claire’s inner journey and then a secondary level of when we turn to Stephen’s later life – but both are melodic and harmonic and entirely reminiscent of his central lovelorn

Ariel Perlman.

Stephen Sondheim: More

Ariel Perlman: viol, percussion, harp, accordion, vocals (second half)

Ariel’s work is delightfully mysterious and versatile: think of the frightening creepy-crawlies motif in America, or a lurking Sunday-toned melody here. Although Ariel works best in silence – slightly thorny alt. rock such as Evergreen and Velvet and hauntingly beautiful Spanish folk like Hesperia and Fall of Icarus are typical – the strings make voice a close second.

Ariel Perlman: sinister white contrail

Ariel Perlman: witch-folk and instrumentals, small ensemble (third half)

Ariel is a musician who can get a dark, agitated quality from his harp, something unusual among harpists. Her vocal work in this piece has a similar effect – the plaintive high trills and the wistful sighs that lead to the crashing swells of the opening section make for a captivating title song – and bring the words to life.

Julian Archange: piano (first half)

Celibate Celibate takes a quiet, acoustic approach to each piece in the classical form. Julian Archange’s warm tone provides just the right recipe for sustaining these dramatic solos. These are simple, but tender pieces, drenched in the airy, wistful sounds of celibate celibacy.

Julian Archange: violin accompaniment

Julian Archange: musiq – acoustic guitar, percussion, piano, vocals

Percussion makes up most of this piece’s energy. The percussion is supplied by around a dozen musicians, and the cellist, Donny Pegg, is the “elder statesman” of the group – an appropriately named figure given the significance of the Christian spirituality that defines the piece. This is an intimately atmospheric piece, and Julian’s spectral contributions provide the kind of minimal accompaniment that seamlessly fits into the song’s setting.

Stephen Sondheim: jagged verses, flowing melodies (third half)

Julian Archange: narration

Celibate Celibate has an eerie stage presence – instead of performing it alone, Julian is partnered by three other musicians. As he introduces the second half, he sets the mood for the entire piece. He plays out the anonymous descriptive character who works around us, as the remaining vocalists fill the role of what the mystical character would’ve been – the voyeur.

Kate Maberly: Elizabeth Hallett

Kate Maberly: piano and violin, piano, ensemble (first half)

Like Ariel, Helen Hallett is, as you’d expect, expressive and forthright. This piece can be applied in a variety of contexts – it belongs in a dark bar. As the patterning at the beginning of the piece intensifies and it becomes more serene, the lightness of its final verses returns, and there’s an ethereal sweetness which is reminiscent of the pieces that suggest a companion piece with this show.

You can see the orchestra perform the cast on Sunday 17 November at 7.30pm at the School of Creative and Performing Arts in London’s Richmond.

Leave a Comment