Review – Fenella Humphreys ‘Prism’ on Rubicon


A captivating collection of pieces for solo violin capturing the spirit and determination of musicians in the early days of the 2020 UK lockdown

There aren’t many things that conjure up happy memories of the first few weeks of the UK lockdown back in 2020, though Fenella Humphreys new album of solo pieces for violin entitled ‘Prism’ is one of them.

Humphreys early forays into the world of live streaming had a whiff of the pioneering days of post-war television. Regular live streams on YouTube saw her and countless others experiment with formats in a statement of defiance, determination, reminding us of what both and us and musicians were missing once lockdown has locked down and became part of our daily lives.

The results were every bit as long-lasting as the Rotterdam Philharmonic Ode to Joy – a poignant reminder of when our empathy was dialled up and digital producers were heavily leaned upon to come up with creative solutions that utilised staff and demonstrated good use of emergency funding packages.

As time went on, so production values increased making digital content more aligned with TV broadcasts, including the stunning OAE’s St John Passion in the round with cameras swirling around orchestra and soloists, and the BBC’s 2020 Proms opener melding Iain Farrington’s multi-genre Beethoven celebration with two dancers backed by lockdown musicians and singers.

It took a little time for everyone to accept that no one was trying to substitute the live experience. What we saw instead were musicians operating within new constraints with ingenuity and infectious determination. Humphreys was one of those who led the pack and Prism is the soundtrack of that innovative spirit so evident in March 2020.

Taken as a whole the album feels like one long out breath, musician and composers embracing the benefit of time and space to concoct something that triggers the imagination.

Humphreys has included a number of pieces she commissioned from composers during the pandemic, combining them with arrangements for solo violin of much-loved classics. These pieces act like musical lay-bys in between stretches where were introduced to a range of different musical languages, vibes, and images.

All of the comparatively unfamiliar music including that from Caroline Shaw, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, and Sarah Lianne-Lewis is highly described, sometimes theatrical – an extended monologue from multiple voices in response to the trauma of the pandemic. Each piece an invitation to form a connection with creatives at a point in time when our usual connection was denied.

J Montgomery’s Rhapsody is a warm bath for solo violin that gets in all the nooks and crannies and leaves you restored. Contemplations by Biles-Lidell is a collection of short movements upbeat hopeful dances and defiantly self-assured slower reflections.

These combined with Humphrey’s arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor frame this collection as a celebration of the creative spirit amidst unprecedented constraints. In doing so, Humphreys has created a positive memory from a dark time. A rare and not inconsiderable achievement.