St Paul’s Hall saw the UK première of no less than two major works last night: one, a large-scale cycle, the other, a full-blown epic. i want to discuss them together, not because they are in any way connected, but because hearing them one after the other brought about interesting contradictions and correlations, which fed into one’s appreciation of both works.
First was Alberto Posadas‘ 70-minute Sombras (Shadows), completed in 2012, which comprises five works, three for ensemble plus a pair of shorter ‘Transitions’ for duos. Before getting into the music, something about the concert presentation. Since the inspiration and recurring theme of Posadas’ cycle is shadows, it would have helped considerably if the strange current policy of keeping the house lights on throughout the concert had not been adhered to; as it was, our imaginations had to work that bit harder to buy into the dark allusions of the music. Giving us the sung texts would also have been nice, but you can’t ask for everything. For this UK première, Quatuor Diotima were joined by soprano Sarah Maria Sun and clarinettist Carl Rosman. Initially, though, just the quartet was involved, performing Elogio de las sombras (Praise of the shadows). This is easily one of the very best string quartets i’ve heard in recent years, incredibly demanding on the players but packed with more than the usual amount of imaginative bandwidth. One has to feel a certain sympathy for cellist Pierre Morlet; not only did one of his strings snap just a few minutes in, but then the assortment of little wedges and mutes required later all began to cascade onto the floor; and then he began stifling a coughing fit. If anyone wanted a demonstration of maintaining focus in the face of adversity, this was it. Although Posadas’ inspiration is shadows, what he hasn’t done is compose obviously ‘dark’ music, but instead, throughout the cycle, has sought to tease out connotations of what shadows can be. His accompanying notes generously seek to dive deeply into this thought process, but what i found especially striking was how unnecessary they seemed, the music leaping off the page with absolute coherence. The quartet continually finds itself in unexpected new avenues and alleys, but there was an abiding logic guiding the decidedly non-linear path. Only once the soprano joined in (for La tentación de las sombras (The temptation of the shadows)) did the music start to become demonstrably umbral, but even then Posadas keeps his textures extremely detailed, full of activity and filigree.
Dealing with this is part of the contradiction that occupied the evening. Detail is a keyword where Sombras is concerned, but Posadas seems to have a knack for making it accessible. If anything, one found oneself sitting on the surface of the music, so to speak, which isn’t ordinarily where i would like to sit (at least, not all the time), but being carried along on it like this seemed to make that sense of logic i spoke of complete. Sense was in part kept at a distance anyway, due to not having the text, but i think we got the gist. However, this aural vantage point didn’t suit the closing work, Del reflejo de la sombra (Of the reflection of shadow), which explored far more convoluted, condensed material. Here, the music became genuinely difficult to process, but that may well have been part of Posadas’ point; certainly, the range of angles from which he approaches the notion of shadow is much greater in this piece, which perhaps accounts for the increased density of its music.
The concert that followed, a performance by edges ensemble of Antoine Beuger‘s four-hour en una noche oscura, could not have been more different. It is a complete setting of the poem with which St John of the Cross prefaces his famous book Ascent of Mount Carmel, each of the eight stanzas occupying a 30-minute block of time. The words, sung by Irene Kurka, are delivered in halting syllables, preceded and accompanied by single, sporadic, sustained pitches from other members of the ensemble (E-bowed guitar, melodica, clarinet, cello, flute, accordion and chamber organ). Here, in contrast to Posadas, the narrow behavioural and sonic palette theoretically meant one could dive more fully into the material. Yet music of this sort—static and utmost solemn—has a way of chastising any and all attempts to probe its intricacies. “What process is guiding when and what the players are doing?”, “Is the clarinet consistently a semitone away from the soprano?”, “Is there a pattern connecting the diverse pitches we’re hearing?”, “Is the structure consistently i) ensemble alone, ii) soprano and ensemble, iii) soprano alone?”, “Does the melodica player realise that nothing she’s playing can be heard by anyone?”—these are just some of the questions that emerged throughout the performance, and all of them felt batted away as soon as they appeared. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of time and aural space to find answers, just that they instantly seemed entirely irrelevant.
The narrative, St John of the Cross’ imagery—echoing the Song of Songs—of an approaching, deeply erotic encounter, became overwhelmingly powerful delivered in this way. As with anything on this scale, there were times when one’s patience fluctuated (for me, during the third and sixth stanzas, probably due to their symmetric proximities to start and end), but overall it obtained a palpable sense of building excitement, even momentum. It’s so many years since i read St John of the Cross that i couldn’t recall the poem’s trajectory, and not reading ahead on this occasion sealed the experience. By the close of the penultimate stanza, the Lover and Beloved just beginning to become tactile, the pent-up pressure felt almost explosive. Beuger’s decision to begin the final stanza with a very long silence was a masterstroke, causing that pressure to sublimate into something even more indescribable (a kind of tantric ecstasy, perhaps); the closing quarter of an hour, consisting solely of Irene Kurka slowly intoning the syllables of the last stanza, are among the most remarkable musical experiences i’ve ever had—desperately you wanted her to hurry up, yet equally you wanted her to linger over each phoneme forever.
What these works share, although exercised in profoundly different ways, is a kind of relentlessness, an unstoppable force that in both cases seems to make penetrative listening neither feasible not desirable. That’s not just a testament to their allusive potency, but to their modes of narrative which are, in Posadas’ case, immediate, and in Beuger’s case, other-worldly. It goes without saying that they require far more than the usual level of commitment, and all involved deserve nothing but the highest praise for giving such transparent, authoritative performances.