Last Saturday’s Proms matinee was devoted to new music, featuring no less a line-up than the BBC Singers and the London Sinfonietta, both conducted by David Atherton.
The concert opened with Peter Maxwell Davies‘ Il rozzo martello, a sombre and rather austere choral work that comes across as older than its mere 14 years would suggest. Unlike so many composers of contemporary choral music, Max is happily unequivocal in his mode of expression, but this also makes the piece a bit of a tough listen, so it benefits from repeated listenings, which ‘soften’ the ostensibly hard edges. It proves, at times, to be captivating; the opening, where overlapping plainsong-esque lines sustain their final note, gradually building a rich chord, is a rather magical way to start the piece, and it ends no less impressively, in a deliciously soft morass of lower voices. It’s often the male voices who have the most striking material, including a dense homophonic episode around halfway through, and some unexpected loud whispers towards the end. A difficult piece, no doubt, but given half a chance, an increasingly rewarding one.
Next came the world première of Georges Aperghis‘ Champ-Contrechamp, a work for piano and ensemble featuring Nicolas Hodges in the solo role. It’s always a treat to hear Aperghis’ wildly theatrical music in the UK, and if ever a piece of his felt like a transcribed game, it’s this one, soloist and ensemble engaged in a seemingly eternal escapade of cat and mouse. Once again, Aperghis has drawn on the other arts for his inspiration, this time turning to cinema; as his programme note explains, “Champ-Contrechamp (Shot/Reverse-shot) is a technical term coming from cinematographic language. It means, for example, that during a dialogue, the camera alternatively shows at first one character and then a second one who is looking at the first one. We pass without transition from one to the other. Similarly this Concerto for piano and ensemble is showing 2 points of view: the pianist one and the ensemble one. Sometimes the soloist creates the sound space in which the ensemble can fuse, and sometimes the ensemble creates the sound place that takes in the soloist”. Notwithstanding the clarity with which Aperghis explains his intentions, the result is highly complex, typified from the outset by subtle, filigree writing. Structurally, too, it’s tough to unpack, and this, together with the relentlessly focussed interplay between the musicians, can on occasion make the piece seem alienating, as though the listener was spectating from a distance. But that would be to ignore the lifeblood of this piece, that very same unceasing interplay, which is mind-boggling in its scope. and, indeed, in its subtlety; for, despite the work’s explicit drama, Aperghis keeps a firm restraint on his material, much of which is surprisingly quiet. The ear ends up skimming the surface of its multitude of intricacies, many of which are lost or barely-glimpsed on a first listening (and some of which will be lost in any listening), but there’s ever the sense of being guided by a bigger instinct, Aperghis drawing our attention rapidly from sound object to sound object. The result, far from tiring, is exhilarating, at its conclusion doing what so few pieces are capable of these days, making one want to listen again straight away.
The rest of the concert was given to the UK première of Harrison Birtwistle‘s large-scale Angel Fighter. The Proms guide feebly describes this 35-minute work for soloists, chorus and orchestra as a ‘pocket oratorio’, but one should make no mistake; Birtwistle has drawn on all his dramatic skills in the piece, which actually comes across as a short opera. With a superb libretto from Stephen Plaice, the work vividly explores one of the Bible’s most enigmatic early episodes, Jacob’s encounter with the angel at the river Jabbock, with whom he wrestles until daybreak. Angel Fighter elaborates this scene, beginning immediately before it, at the point where Jacob is dividing his belongings in order to make a present designed to appease his brother Esau, who is on the warpath since Jacob tricked him out of his inheritance. The chorus takes the role of antagonist, at first becoming the mouthpiece of Jacob’s tribe, questioning both the decency of Jacob’s action as well as the veracity of his recurring visions. It’s a tense place for the drama to begin, and despite opening softly, Birtwistle quickly fills the chorus’s words with vitriol, their lines hissed and spat at Jacob, becoming a vicious stream of caterwauling insults, coloured by sharp accents in the orchestra: “Jacob seducer … deserter … appeaser … faker!”. Jacob’s having none of it, his ripostes encapsulated in a lyrical moment of wistfulness, “I am in the thrall of higher design”. All the same, the chorus clearly undermines Jacob’s sense of certainty, and in an aggressive aria, Jacob questions himself on his recent encounters with God, desperately concluding in a half-yelled refrain, “Yahweh, give me a sign!”. This is the cue for the first, distant glimpse of the Angel, Birtwistle instantly transforming the music into something hitherto unheard; the chorus transfixed, open-mouthed, string harmonics barely-moving, inflected with quartertones, brass and woodwind almost entirely reduced to microscopic gasps. At first singing in what Birtwistle describes as ‘Enochian’, the Angel’s language finally becoming comprehensible at the culmination of its descent, at which point we enter the heart of the drama. In Stephen Plaice’s rendering the wrestling match is the divine response to Jacob’s uncertainties, “to prove I’m real” as the Angel puts it. Birtwistle doesn’t just dive into the action, though; Jacob’s response to the Angel’s suggestion (and the chorus’s taunts) is slow and hesitant, described in a telling passage dominated by the lower strings and bassoons. “Don’t you want to know me?” from the Angel triggers Jacob into action, and they fight, their lines overlapping one another while the orchestra plays out the unseen strikes and blows. Having survived two painful falls, Jacob grasps the Angel for all he’s worth, repeatedly demanding “Submit! Submit!”; in panic at the imminent daybreak, the Angel dislocates Jacob’s hip, but even this can’t dislodge him. Despite what the Angel claimed was the point of the combat, Jacob wants to know who exactly he’s been fighting, which occupies the epilogue of the piece. In its own highly florid aria, accompanied by just cor anglais and harp, the Angel makes the case for the incompatibility (from the divine perspective) of the notion of names, arguing “Should the Word give up its mystery, to have it twisted in Babel’s dust?”. Instead, it offers Jacob a blessing, whereupon its return to the beyond is heralded by a distant trumpet (marked in the score: “from behind the audience”), and it departs to a savage outburst from the brass. The chorus lets fly an equally harsh paean of praise, while Jacob offers his own final declamation of worship, his vocal line now tellingly liberated from the metric strictures of both chorus and orchestra.
This is easily the most substantial, challenging and memorable new work heard so far at this year’s Proms. It’s genuinely exciting to hear drama expressed with such raw clarity, in the process affording the listener a new kind of lyricism, free from clichés and prefabricated mannerisms. This is surely what new music is all about.