Lent Series

Simon Steen-Andersen – String Quartet No. 2 (UK Première)

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If there’s one thing practically guaranteed every year at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, it’s the presence of a string quartet that approaches the medium from a radical perspective, one that does away, almost entirely, with its traditions & connotations. The next work in my Lent series focussing on new quartets is just such a piece: Simon Steen-Andersen‘s String Quartet No. 2, given its first UK performance at HCMF 2012 by the Bozzini Quartet. It wasn’t so very long ago, writing about another recent quartet, Hans Abrahamsen’s String Quartet No. 4, that i critiqued quite harshly music that stretched its modest quota of restricted material far, far too thinly, with mind-numbing results. By contrast, Steen-Andersen demonstrates that it’s possible to confine almost every aspect of the work while maintaining high levels of invention & interest.

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Richard Barrett – 13 selfportraits (UK Première)

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The next quartet i’m including in my Lent series is one that i’ve been grappling with for over a decade. When Richard Barrett’s 13 selfportraits was given its first UK performance at the Huddersfield Festival in 2002, i can’t have been the only person in the audience to have been struck hard by its apparent impenetrability. That’s not an epithet one would usually associate with Barrett; there’s layer upon layer of intricacy & connotation in his work, but almost always borne by material that’s both immediate & strikingly emotional. Put crudely, grasping exactly what Barrett’s on about isn’t always straight forward, but getting where he’s coming from certainly is. All of which makes the 13 selfportraits even more of an unusual & inscrutable entity.

It’s perhaps not unreasonable to find the work problematic; in his programme note, Barrett addresses this when explaining its structural aspects:

Although it does indeed consist of thirteen structural elements (of widely differing durations), these do not follow each other in sequence but are often fragmented, alternated, superimposed and so on; one of them is distributed throughout the work’s duration, ending as well as beginning it, and reappearing within and between the others. So it is neither a composition in several independent parts nor a single unfolding time span, but a combination of the two.

I am rather intrigued by the fact that exactly the same music might be described as “confused and incoherent” or on the other hand “a sequence of exquisite miniatures” depending on whether it presents itself in the form of separate “movements” or not. (Imagine, for example, playing Webern’s op.10 without any breaks between the pieces, or even overlapping them…) The present work attempts not to define itself one way or the other, so that if it does sound confused, then perhaps it might be exquisitely so.

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Thomas Adès – Arcadiana

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Being Ash Wednesday, today marks the start of Lent; last year i spent the season exploring a variety of choral & vocal works, but this year i’m going to focus attention on the string quartet. To begin, one of my favourite contemporary quartets, Thomas AdèsArcadiana, composed in 1994 for the Endellion Quartet, who gave the first performance in November. My first encounter with the work was the following summer, when the Endellions brought it to the Cheltenham Music Festival; it made a very deep impression on me then, & it still does today.

Adès conceived the piece as a series of short evocations, each of the seven movements being “an image associated with ideas of the idyll, vanishing, vanished or imaginary”. As such, fantasy & allusion are richly present throughout, Adès deliberately intimating at various composers while refraining from obvious quotation. The opening movement, ‘Venezia notturno’ (all of the odd movements reference aquatic subjects), is the least assertive of them all, undulating arpeggios & a lilting leitmotif sitting beneath a fragile duet. In truth, though, the whole texture is as fragile as crêpe paper, & just as translucent; there’s a flash of something half-familiar—& it’s gone, washed away in the momentarily aggressive coda. ‘Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schon’ is a title directly drawn from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, & Papageno’s bells seem to be the source here, with the Queen of the Night putting in an appearance right at the end. ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ switches to a Schubert lied as inspiration, the downward pattern of the well-known piano part becoming a preoccupation of the entire quartet, first as onomatopoeic pizzicato drips, eventually as a more passionate cascade; it’s the first time in Arcadiana that the quartet becomes really substantial. Read more

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John Tavener – Towards Silence (European Première)

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It was hard thinking of a work to feature today; in the wider scope of Lent & Holy Week, Holy Saturday is a strange day, & in some ways listening to John Cage’s 4’33” on repeat would seem to be the most appropriate thing to do. However, i’ve opted instead for a work from a composer whose music usually leaves me spluttering & fending off expletives. John Tavener‘s Towards Silence was composed in 2007, & is probably the only piece ever written for four string quartets & a large Tibetan singing bowl. To an extent, the title says it all, & put simply, the piece is (in Tavener’s words) “a meditation on the different states of dying”, but Tavener’s deeper inspiration comes from the four states of the self as conceived by a particular school of Hinduism: a waking state, a dream state, a condition of deep sleep, & “that which is beyond” (Tavener’s extensive programme note can be read here).

Tavener structures the work in four seamless movements of increasing length. The first three display considerable activity & counterpoint, although—bearing the title in mind again—the overall direction is one of decline. The work uses five basic ideas that shift between the quartets: rapid semiquaver tremolos, accented quintuplets, undulating quaver trills, heavy but quick repeated note passages & slow, drawn-out melodies that employ various ragas (but which for the most part sound like conventional modes). From the second movement on, Tavener progressively thins out the texture as well as introducing a sixth idea, a melody with mobile pitch order & unspecified rhythms. The conclusion of each of the first three movements is marked with a short episode that requires the players also to chant as they play; the word ‘soham’ is used twice, while the third movement closes to ‘om’. Read more

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Bernat Vivancos – El davallament de la creu (World Première)

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Having spent two days with Italian music, to mark Good Friday i’m turning to Spain, & the music of Bernat Vivancos. Vivancos was born in Barcelona in 1973 & studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire & in Oslo; having returned to Spain, for the last five years he has been musical director of the Montserrat Boys Choir. In Holy Week last year, at a live concert broadcast from the Montserrat Basilica, Vivancos’ new work El davallament de la creu (The Descent from the Cross) was premièred, & it’s not only an interesting addition to the vast repertoire of Good Friday music, but one of the most visceral examples that i know of.

Vivancos creates the work from two kinds of material, utterly different. One of the organs (two are used) is like a force of nature, solely occupied with vast, violent fortissimo plunges from extremely high to deep rumbling clusters; these deep clusters are frequently repeated, like immense blows to the chest. Not so much against this but alongside it, the choir, mysteriously unaffected, move in the opposite direction, making a gradual ascent from an initial low register. Read more

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Carlo Gesualdo – Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday

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i noted yesterday Sciarrino’s interest in Carlo Gesualdo, and so today, as Holy Week moves into the Triduum, here is a complete recording of Gesualdo’s setting of the Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Tenebrae is a remarkable service that’s rarely used today; it was created by combining the morning offices of Matins and Lauds, and then celebrating them in the late evening of the day before, so Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday would conventionally have taken place on Wednesday evening. It was a service with considerable ceremonial drama, with an elaborate candlestick—known as a ‘tenebrae hearse’—at its epicentre; throughout the service these candles would be gradually extinguished until only one remained (back in 2009 i posted a complete service of Tenebrae from Westminster Cathedral, which you can find here). Gesualdo’s music sets the nine responsories from the Matins part of Tenebrae (Lauds is primarily made up of psalms and antiphons). They fall into three ‘nocturns’, each containing three responsories; the first nocturn focusses on Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, the second switches attention to Judas, and the third widens the scope to show how pretty much everyone played their part in Jesus’ betrayal.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Gesualdo’s compositional style should continue to sound radical and strange into the 21st century. As i mentioned briefly yesterday, his life certainly had its share of drama, and the considerable anguish he wrought upon himself—he never lived down the crimes passionnels for which he is equally famous—can be heard paralleled in the distressed pungency of the Tenebrae Responsories. Composed in 1611, just two years before his death, they are a total departure from the smooth fluidity that characterises the polyphony of Palestrina and Victoria; to my mind, he draws similarities with his almost exact contemporary El Greco, whose work was equally at odds with the prevailing tempora and mores. In particular, Gesualdo’s use of chromaticism, used to pull chords in the most bizarre, oblique directions, is genuinely groundbreaking, and the way he would alternate between episodes like this and more traditional, diatonic passages only makes his music sound even more extraordinary. In a work like the Tenebrae Responsories, of course, such techniques seem to modern ears highly appropriate, heightening the intensity of the unfolding Holy Week narrative, now moving swiftly towards its nadir. The second responsory, Tristis est anima mea, demonstrates this especially strongly, Jesus’ words of sorrow carried on the most uncomfortably shifting chords, seeking anything approximating a cadence. Gesualdo breaks the music’s reserve at the accusation that the apostles will all flee, only then to resume an even more tragically sombre tone at the final thought of becoming a human sacrifice. Each of the responsories has its own moments like these; together (and alongside Gesualdo’s Responsories for Good Friday and Holy Saturday) they remain one of the most horribly vivid pieces of Holy Week music ever composed.

This performance dates back a good many years (i’ve lost the exact date of the broadcast), but took place on Maundy Thursday at the Temple Church in London. It was given by the wonderful Hilliard Ensemble, and as one would expect from them, is a remarkably faithful and heartfelt rendition of Gesualdo’s music.

Carlo Gesualdo – Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday

FLAC1 FLAC2 [282Mb – contains full text with translation]

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Salvatore Sciarrino – Responsorio delle Tenebre

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In recent times, one of the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino‘s significant interests has been the life & music of his compatriot Carlo Gesualdo. Sciarrino’s opera Luci mie traditrici, composed in 2003, explored the events surrounding Gesualdo’s murder of his wife & her lover, & two years earlier he wrote a small choral work in response to the composer’s much-lauded setting of the Tenebrae services.

However, Sciarrino’s Responsorio delle Tenebre does not, in fact, draw on the texts used in Tenebrae (or indeed Gesualdo’s music), but is a setting of Psalm 54. The text, uttered in the midst of “strangers” & “enemies”, is a rather desperate plea for vindication & rescue, & Sciarrino’s approach is simultaneously robust & vulnerable. Each of the seven verses is sung twice (in the order 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5-6-4-5-6-7-7), oscillating between a stark, bold delivery using plainchant & a quavering collection of overlapping wails & sobs, focussed on & around a single note. Read more

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