HCMF 2017: Polish Radio Choir, Karin Hellqvist

by 5:4

For the first twenty minutes of the concert given by the Polish Radio Choir in Huddersfield Town Hall yesterday, i was forming the view that, though what we’d heard seemed at odds with his description, Dai Fujikura had nonetheless composed not only two of his best ever works, but better than much of the new choral music i’ve heard in the last few years. However, then Polish composer Agata Zubel came onto the stage to take a bow, and it transpired we hadn’t been told that the entire running order had changed. Only now, after this, did we actually hear the UK and world premières of Fujikura’s Zawazawa and Sawasawa respectively, and as it turned out they were a much more conventional and humdrum affair. Zawazawa was interesting for a time, a mixture of homophonic writing with a muscular delivery giving the impression of a single voice refracted or multiplied into a much larger manifestation. It was let down by an excess of repetition, but quite pretty at times. Sawasawa, by contrast, was thoroughly confused, mainly due to the addition of a marimba that at almost no point seemed connected or related to what the choir was doing. Or, indeed, relevant; often it seemed as though two entirely separate pieces were being played simultaneously. All very odd.

Wojtek Blecharz‘s Ahimsa, the UK première of which had actually begun the concert, explored a fascinating patchwork vocal texture made up of sonic swatches imbued with small, highly characterised motifs, acting like drops of ink being absorbed into a piece of tissue paper. Blecharz subjected these motifs to a joyous, sensual treatment, almost tactile, juxtaposing focused chords and pitches with semi-sung, spoken and shouted elements, both successively and simultaneously. Aided by an energetic interplay of free-wheeling and highly metric rhythms, the combined result was exhilarating. Agata Zubel stole the show, though, with her short work for five singers Madrigals. Structured as a triptych, and indebted to Sciarrino, it passed from an opening panel full of intense emotion – keening, yearning, imploring – in a constant outpouring stream, into a central section that developed from inaudible whispers and exhalations to a network of individuated acts of expression encompassing calls, swoops and even bursts of crooning, before collapsing into a hilariously contagious choreographed outbreak of full-blooded laughter. This was answered by a closing panel that spoke like an emotional inversion of the first, soft, contemplative and dreamy. Outstandingly imaginative; and the relish with which the Polish Radio Choir performed the piece was etched onto each of their faces. On the strength of this i’ll be investigating a lot more of Zubel’s work as soon as possible.

The evening brought Swedish violinist Karin Hellqvist to Phipps Hall, for a recital populated by three discrete worlds. While it was impossible to reconcile Malin Bång‘s programme note for her new work Siku – concerned with the damage humanity has inflicted on the global ecosystem – with what we were hearing, its combination of an amplified hourglass (an obvious metaphor: time inexorably running out) with intense intimate treatment of the strings – scratching, bending and grinding them, alongside quicksilver glistenings from frenetic bowing – created a striking if superficial soundworld. More telling was Ylva Lund Bergner‘s viivii (another world première), which softly evoked folk music, akin to a long-lost ballad from the Highlands spontaneously materialising in darkness like a will-o’-the-wisp. The work’s ending was unconvincing, as though something new were taking shape only to be cut off, but the atmosphere throughout was never less than magical. For the last and longest piece in the concert, Hellqvist was joined by composer Natasha Barrett for the first UK performance of Sagittarius A*, a 30-minute electroacoustic epic that uses the sounds of a Norwegian forest as an unlikely but surprisingly effective analogue for the titular black hole. So much was occurring within the work that it would take further listenings to really begin to penetrate and unpick its welter of fascinating details. Yet Barrett is supremely gifted at ensuring her work has a powerful immediacy: it doesn’t just pack a punch but positively overwhelms. Sometimes it was as if we were plunged vertiginously into its soundworld – both rising and falling, spiralling – whereas elsewhere we were static and the music was whirling around us. Hellqvist’s relationship with this was two-fold: first, her actions to an extent modulated the character and direction of the electronics, and second, during the work’s most disorienting, hallucinatory episodes Hellqvist kept us, in the best sense, grounded, acting as a point of stability – or, at least, familiarity – while everything else appeared to be uprooted and swirling out of control. A stunning piece that, unlike much electroacoustic music, was a genuine duet, equal but opposite partners in a vivid, large-scale voyage of discovery. It’s such a shame we don’t get to hear Barrett’s work in British concerts more often; she’s definitely one of our very best.

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Those pesky programme changes. The middle piece in the Hellqvist concert was Jenny Hettne’s While She Was Dreaming. I did actually get a piece of paper telling me about this change. I was just as surprised as you by the Polish Radio Choir.

[…] was performed at last year’s HCMF, and while it was a modestly interesting piece, i noted on that occasion how it hadn’t been possible to reconcile the programme note – about the damage humanity has […]

[…] A* by Natasha Barrett. A work for violin and electronics, performed on this occasion by Jian Ren, when writing about it in 2017 i remarked how further listenings would be vital “to really begin to penetrate and unpick […]

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