The final Proms Saturday Matinee, two days ago, featured the BBC Singers, exploring a variety of contemporary works inspired by early music. The singers were joined for the occasion by the Arditti Quartet and members of Endymion, with David Hill presiding.
The concert opened with Judith Weir‘s millennial composition All the Ends of the Earth. Weir’s innate sensitivity in writing for voices is superbly demonstrated here, the sopranos exploring increasingly complex melismas; they’re answered at intervals by the lower voices, who are backed up by soft harp and percussion. The melodic lines soon become concentric, fast and slow simultaneously, an obvious tip-of-the-hat to Weir’s inspiration for the piece, Perotin. The lower voices’ contributions become more and more static, less and less frequent, as the piece progresses; greatest emphasis is given to the often stratospheric sopranos, whose repeated Alleluia refrain carries real weight, despite the altitude. Towards the conclusion, both the lower voices and the instruments get more caught up in the celebration, the choir ultimately uniting at the very end.
It was followed by the world première of Thea Musgrave‘s Ithaca, a work that hits the ground running, in weighty, imploring fashion, the material soon finding a rhythm (akin to Weir’s previously) where upper and lower registers answer one another. The movement is slow, the textures are thin, and there quickly develops a sense of familiarity in Musgrave’s harmonic language; in short, it sounds rather old fashioned, and while there’s a clear sense of forward motion, it’s nonetheless dogged, even tired. And this seems strange; Thea Musgrave’s text (which is annoying difficult to discern throughout) is concerned with the excitement of Odysseus’ homeward journey to Ithaca, but her material is entirely lacking in energy. Admittedly, the text commands “Do not hurry the journey at all”, but Musgrave seems to have taken this to extremes, enfeebling Odysseus’ thrilling sea voyage home into a long distance cruise for retired pensioners.
A greater sense of drama is brought to bear in Bayan Northcott‘s Hymn to Cybele. Northcott also draws on classical poetry, Catullus’ 63rd poem, concerned with the rather unsavoury tale of Attis, a priest of Cybele (the ancient Phrygian term for the ‘Earth Mother’). Northcott even goes so far as to assign characters to some of the singers, embellished by occasional percussion and strings. The work comes across like a fragment from a chamber opera, except it seems decidedly inward-looking, rather too concerned with its own seriousness. For all the ambitious scope and dramatis personæ, it unfortunately remains aloof and unengaging for much of its duration. One wonders whether the addition of some visuals—perhaps as part of a semi-staged dramatic scena—might help; as pure sound the picture feels incomplete.
All the performers hitherto are replaced with a string quartet for the London première of Brian Ferneyhough‘s Dum transisset I–IV. Ferneyhough’s inspiration is the 16th century composer Christopher Tye, the title a reference to the first of the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels, the occasion when, early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and her clutch of companions make their way to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. ‘Reliquary’ opens in recognisably Ferneyhough fashion, echoing both the spirit and the stylistic gesturalism (usually the product of numerous refractions of material) heard in his other string works. Beneath the restless surface, however, something more lyrical is lurking, its presence only briefly felt; it’s unable to establish a foothold, and the movement ends in the opposite direction, broken up into a myriad pizzicati. Ferneyhough titles the second movement ‘Totentanz’, which certainly lives up to the name; indeed, it’s as macabre a danse as you’ll come across, the instruments convulsing with paroxysmic twitches and spasms (somewhat redolent of the insane conclusion of Richard Barrett’s ne songe plus à fuir). Caught deep within it, however, comes the first overtly recognisable glimpse of Tye’s music, emerging almost shockingly out of the madness, in moments of rare lucidity. ‘Shadows’ reveals yet more obvious Tye references, straining to emerge from the heavily muted strings. The hints of lyricism from the opening movement find more convincing (and convinced) expression here, made all the more fragile and earnest due to the drastic dynamic restrictions. The delicacy of this movement is absolutely captivating, enhancing the poignancy of the material rather than diminishing it. And to close, ‘Contrafacta’ (a title inviting further analytical investigation) instantly jolts the piece alive again, injecting velocity and volume back into the music. It’s Ferneyhough at his most accessible (if that isn’t the world’s worst oxymoron), a bewildering, thrilling finale, one made all the more satisfying by its unexpectedly tantalising conclusion, the material dissipating into thin air. It’s a superb work—casting a rather unfavourable light on the brace of works that preceded it in the concert—and the audience’s enthusastic response to this most challenging but deeply rewarding music is heart-warming.
Ferneyhough’s Dum transisset is followed by two more pieces bearing the same title, the concert returning to choral music. First is by Tye’s great contemporary, John Taverner, whose setting is lengthy and substantial. The text, at this stage in the Gospels, is only the most preliminary of episodes leading up to the Resurrection (no mention yet of angels or risen Messiahs), but Taverner’s clearly got the end already in sight. In a discreet, early example of possible word painting, he gives the top soprano a line that continually rises, drawn to the top of the stave like a magnet. There’s a piquant moment as the choir sings ‘aromata’ (referring to the spices the ladies brought to the tomb), the harmonies shifting chromatically somewhat; but otherwise Taverner’s piece is all joy, encapsulating the Easter celebration with no fewer than three occurences of the Alleluia.
Jonathan Harvey‘s setting of the same text follows, and while i’m familiar with the majority of Harvey’s choral output, this was new to me. It bears a more guarded demeanour than that exhibited by Taverner, if anything suggestive of the incomprehension and uncertainty that would ensue once the women arrived at the tomb. It’s often dark music, although happily countered by its own pair of Alleluia passages, throwing light and happiness onto the text’s early morning shadows.
Taverner returns with one of his most famous passages of music, the Benedictus from his widely lauded Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. It’s given a robust performance, although sounds a little thin, with the soprano line bearing rather too much vibrato to be enjoyable. Heard here, it’s difficult to ascertain what it was exactly that got so many composers so excited about this passage, which must rank among the most influential in all music.
Gabriel Jackson‘s new work, receiving its world première, continues to betray that influence, titled, in homage, In nomine Domini,. From the outset, Jackson fashions the sopranos into a cluster of songbirds, delivering angular but attractive opening melodies, underpinned by the harp. The following string (quasi-viol) music sails a bit close to the wind of pastiche, and as the singers return, this episode leaves an incongruous aftertaste. The vocal melodies continue to undulate in jagged lines, although these are considerably smoothened by occasional chordal interjections. The strings return, and in so doing, elaborate and make sense of what went before; the language here still feels a touch phony, but Jackson’s delicate enrichment of the harmonies is more palatable. The voices now join together (they’ve been largely independent until now) in a chorale that builds to the work’s first climax. The next string episode is more thoughtful, even injected with a hint of melancholy; it’s still a bit cloying, though, with more than a hint of incidental music for some generic romantic drama. A clichéd whooshing harp glissando ushers in the most excited choral passage so far, a solo soprano riding high on a battery of lesser mutterings; increasingly insistent chimes accompany the choir’s crescendo, and once again we’re back with the strings, commenting on—who knows what? The work’s final episode commences with a soft tolling bell, the choir echoing this with a rare display of gentle restraint.
This was a genuinely impressive concert, in no small part due to the outstanding quality of the performers. In some ways it worked rather better on paper than in practice, but having said that, the sheer diversity of styles and manners heard in this concert is arguably a more successful and enjoyable model than one striving for a greater sense of unity. Ferneyhough and Jackson, in particular, came across as poles apart, seeming to exacerbate each other’s traits, making each other—depending on your tastes—either more accessible or off-putting.