HAPPY CHRISTMAS!. To celebrate the feast, here’s a selection from the renowned Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that took place yesterday at King’s College, Cambridge.
After the fifth lesson came I sing of a maiden by Lennox Berkeley, a sublime creation, its ostensible simplicity containing some lovely harmonic piquancy. Berkeley was the first composer to be commissioned to write a new anthem for this service, back in the early 1980s, beginning an admirable tradition of commissioning a new work each year. Read more
A new church year is upon us, and with it comes the first choral broadcast for the season of Advent. Yesterday, Radio 3 broadcast the Advent Carol Service live from the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, the choir of which has a deservedly high reputation. They’re also innovative; about 6 weeks ago, they became the first choir of this kind to make their services available as weekly webcasts; for more information go here.
The service featured several interesting contemporary pieces. James MacMillan‘s A New Song is one of his most emphatically melodious anthems; its blend of high solemnity yielding to radiance is just right for Advent. Simon Beattie‘s Advent Calendar is broadcast here for the first time; it’s an interesting piece, not entirely successful, as it lacks a clear sense of direction, but with some nicely-judged poignant harmonic writing. Jonathan Dove‘s I am the day is a simple, delicate confection with a curious patchwork quality, weaving fragments that each sound familiar yet become something new; i like it. Read more
Here’s a recording of James MacMillan‘s most recent work, the String Quartet No. 3, premièred by the Takacs Quartet on 21 May, at the QEH in London. i don’t know either of MacMillan’s previous two quartets, but this new addition is a fairly ambitious work. MacMillan speaks in his preliminary discussion (illustrated with examples by the Takacs) of the melodic, cantabile quality of the material, and this is highly evident throughout, especially in the lyrical first movement, the principal theme of which has a distinct Jewish flavour. Strange, disjunct gestures begin the second movement, ominous and disquieted. From them, melodic fragments appear, many of them cast from a similarly disquieted mould: the viola embarks on a short restless journey, buzzing like an angry bee; later all four combine to sound like a heavily wheezing concertina. On a couple of occasions, dance figurations try to assert themselves, only to be thrust brusquely back into the maelstrom and promptly dissipated; the movement ends much as it began, one of MacMillan’s most fascinatingly strange creations. The lyricism returns for the final movement, which is the most conservative and familiar of the three. It is all melody, led powerfully by the first violin, charting a trajectory into the most achingly high regions of its E string, its three companions forming a supportive trio at its base. At the summit, it repeats plaintively, and everything turns harmonic, fading into transparency. Read more
It’s been a while since i’ve featured Choral Evensong on here; they really haven’t been terribly interesting of late. However, today’s service of Choral Evening Prayer took place during the annual Exon Singers Festival from Buckfast Abbey in Devon. Buckfast is a place close to my heart; i’ve been there a number of times, and it’s a sublime, gorgeous place, with spacious gardens populated by a plethora of types of lavender, and its shop selling monastic goods from around the world, including the renowned and highly-charged liqueur Chartreuse. A thriving monastery, it’s not surprising that the worship from Buckfast should be measured and thoughtful, offered with the greatest of care, making it a dual delight for the listener, both in terms of style and content.
Focus of the service was on composer Philip Moore, former director of music of York Minster. Read more
Here’s a real treat for those who prefer their contemporary music to be at the more intellectually rewarding end of the continuum. It’s music from a concert given at the ICA in London by Ensemble Exposé (plus violist Garth Knox), under the direction of Roger Redgate, who also discusses the music being performed. The concert explored works by diverse composers, from the relatively gentle and meditative soundscapes of Paul Davies and Bent Sørensen to the more densely intricate textures of James Dillon and Richard Barrett (Barrett originally co-founded the ensemble with Redgate); Xenakis, as ever, stands apart, uniquely indescribable. It culminated in the first UK performance of Incipits by one of the greats of contemporary music, Brian Ferneyhough, a fascinating work exploring different ways to start a composition. Also included is a lengthy interview with the composer including a number of other short pieces. Read more
Last Wednesday, i and the Beloved were at Bath Abbey, for a “Messiaen Centenary Celebration” given as part of the Bath Festival. The highlight of the concert was Messiaen‘s rarely-performed Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, preceded by two works, a keyboard concerto by J. S. Bach, and the world première of Les Ondes Orientales by Dhafer Youssef. Thankfully, the concert was recorded by the BBC, and broadcast yesterday. Joanna MacGregor is the artistic director of the Bath Festival, so she was prominent in all three pieces. The Bach concerto is spirited and fun, with some lovely string writing, particularly in the slow middle movement; the solo part is highly florid, and almost continuous, but Joanna MacGregor tackles such things with incredible ease. In fact, she appeared so relaxed with the material that her communicative/reflective facial expressions seemed to become rather exaggerated (think Natalie Clein, but not so comic); all the same, it was a refreshing opener, a kind of musical sorbet. Read more
Yesterday’s Choral Evensong was a treat for lovers of modern Church music, being a live broadcast of the final service in this year’s London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, from St Pancras Church. As such, it was interesting overview of current practise, as well as a blessed relief from the generic fare too often dished up at these services.
Anthony Powers‘ introit had its moments, despite its excited chord progressions sometimes sounding arbitrary; there’s an earnest, heartfelt quality in his setting, sounding (as all Church music should) “sung to God”. Peter Nardone‘s Responses were pedestrian—getting the choir to sing loudly doesn’t equate to “joyful”; more about these later. The office hymn had a pleasing grandiosity to it; i’d not heard the tune “Straker” before—if anyone can tell me who it’s by, i’d be very grateful. Director of Music (and Festival Artistic Director) Christopher Batchelor clearly couldn’t resist including his own music, which was a shame as his chants for the Psalms were mundane and predictable. The latter of the two had some interest to it, but the music and the performance did little to capture the power of Psalm 94’s words. Why composers aren’t doing more interesting things with the Psalms is beyond me. Read more