Voices returned to contemporary music at the Proms on Wednesday evening, with the first performance of Matthew Kaner‘s new vocal work Pearl. The piece, for baritone and orchestra, takes its title from the Middle English poem Pearl, written by the anonymous Gawain Poet, setting portions of the text from Simon Armitage’s 2016 translation. The narrative concerns a father mourning the loss of his “perle”, who subsequently falls asleep and in his dream meets a woman whom he believes to be Pearl. She first tells him he that actually hasn’t lost anything at all, saying (in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fine translation) “For what you lost was but a rose / That by nature failed after flowering brief”, before proceeding to wax theological, at great length, about a veritable shedload of Christian doctrine.
In some respects, the most succinct and accurate way of summing up my response to Pearl would be with a shrug emoji. The general tone of the work, prior to the meeting with the woman, is where the piece is at its best. Kaner sets up a light but warm environment in which the orchestra’s role is very clearly defined as a supporting one. As such, they move carefully around the baritone, seeking always to reinforce, keeping their distance while he sings, only pushing forward when he falls silent. The character of the music is nicely balanced between a sense of inherent excitement – usually manifesting in the behaviour of individual instruments, such as various solo strings that emerge periodically, echoing each other – and a broader mood of wistful rapture. There’s a marked sense of enamoured reverence running through the baritone’s music (not surprising when contemplating a deceased loved one), and Kaner doesn’t break this when the words become more mournful; rather, the music tightens somewhat, accents glance against its surface, phrases tumble, everything less soft and relaxed than before, and eventually even becoming distant and oblique.
What makes the piece shrug-worthy is its languorous attitude and basic musical language. It’s hard to argue that any of Kaner’s music doesn’t fit the narrative, yet it’s equally hard to argue that any of it is especially memorable or individual. The generalised patina of delicate opulence has a filmic quality that, because it persists throughout much of the work, loses its effect after a time, like staring at a vast room filled with sparkling jewels for too long. Furthermore, the way things change after meeting the dream woman is problematic. Kaner seems to be aiming for transcendence, but the resultant mush doesn’t so much shine as coagulate, the words lost in the chorus’s glitter-strewn but only vaguely refulgent mess.
It’s worth noting, with regard to this, that while it’s understandable that Kaner should seek to “steer the piece towards a universal message of grief and redemption”, away from the superstitions of religion, surely that’s a doomed, indeed pointless, thing to seek to do with such a fundamentally religious text as this. In the rational world outside religion, death is simply an end, yet everything about Pearl‘s narrative and musical trajectory indicates it’s worth holding out for something imaginary that might lie beyond.
Overall, largely due to the homogenised nature of the music – plus the fact that, though sectional, the work unfolds in a single, extended flow – it feels as if Kaner is just taking too long to move through the narrative, which in this greatly truncated version, is extremely short in any case. While his approach is quite touching during the first half of the piece, helping to commune the love and loss at the heart of the words, it’s frustrating during the anticlimactic second half, the piece at times even seeming to noodle for some periods. Each time i’ve listened, i’ve found myself wishing i’d stopped at the point where the man fell asleep; perhaps that’s where Pearl should have stopped too.
The world première of Pearl was given by baritone Roderick Williams with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth.
HAVE YOUR SAY
Matthew Kaner - Pearl
- Loved it! (21%, 6 Votes)
- Liked it (21%, 6 Votes)
- Meh (38%, 11 Votes)
- Disliked it (10%, 3 Votes)
- Hated it! (10%, 3 Votes)
Total Voters: 29
My new piece sets extracts from Simon Armitage’s stunning translation of the English medieval poem Pearl. It tells the story of a man who, in mourning the death of a young child, revisits the place where he lost her, falls asleep and has a vision of her in the afterlife. The music also depicts this narrative journey: the protagonist’s earthly mourning, his dream vision and the uncanny yet moving appearance of his daughter in paradise, surrounded by the heavenly choir of all those who have also left this world. It’s an explicitly religious text but I’ve tried to steer the piece towards a universal message of grief and redemption.