Cumnock Tryst: Historical Fiction

St John’s Church, Cumnock

Saxophonist Christian Forshaw describes his approach to his latest album, Historical Fiction, as being “the same kind of process authors of the genre use, where they’ll take a skeletal framework of history and then weave their own narrative around that.” 

The result, on disc, is mesmerising, the crystalline purity of Grace Davidson’s soprano performance in music ranging from the medieval Hildegard of Bingen to Baroque masters Handel and Purcell working hand on glove with Forshaw’s improvisatory dialogues and the composed links that give seamless continuity to the entire performance.

Presenting it live as part of last weekend’s Cumnock Tryst Festival, with Libby Burgess on organ instead of the original Alex Mason, proved more of a challenge. The venue, the Ayrshire town’s modest St John’s Church, seemed a tad too claustrophobic for a concept that cried out for both physical and acoustical opulence. 

There was still ravishment and a quintessential purity in Davidson’s pitch-perfect singing of Purcell’s Fairest Isle and Gibbons’ beautifully evocative The Silver Swan among others, around which Forshaw’s responsive commentary cast an illuminating halo. But all of that, even Forshaw’s own set pieces, seemed locked firmly within the apsidal chancel of the church, confining the resonating glow that the nave-seated audience would love to have fully shared.

That same containment went against the ritualised nature of the performance. The idea was sound, from Davidson’s solitary plainsong entrance to the chess-like shifting of positions by her and Forshaw, dependant on where the spotlight should focus, that animated the flow. They simply required more room and fewer obstacles to negotiate. The killer blow was a power cut minutes from the end, leaving the organ impotent, and sabotaging the final idyllic Dowland song, Come Heavy Sleep.

In the right place, a cathedral perhaps, this would have been a much more moving experience. Historical Fiction, it seems to me, belongs to a more mystical, ethereal setting. And a more reliable power supply.

Ken Walton