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composer, poet, critic, essayist

Tuesday 19 April 2016

BBC NOW: #Dutilleux100: French & British Composers

Live | BBC NOW: Dutilleux 100, French & British Composers
Dutilleux © gontiermusic.com

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 27 January 2016

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Conductor – Pascal Rophé
Soprano – Elizabeth Atherton

Eric Tanguy – Affetuoso, ‘In memoriam Henri Dutilleux’
Julian Anderson – Shir Hashrim
Thierry Pécou – Les liaisons magneétiques
Kenneth Hesketh – Graven Image
Henri Dutilleux – Le temps l’horloge

If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time that bruises your shoulders and bends you to the earth, you must be drunk without cease. But how? With wine, with poetry, with virtue, with what you please.
Charles Baudelaire, ‘Enivrez-vous’ (‘Be drunk’ from Petits Poèmes en Prose, 1869)

It is very poignant that the final song in Henri Dutilleux’s last published piece, Le temps l’horloge (‘Time and the Clock’), should be his only setting of Baudelaire; the poet who had been perhaps the profoundest influence on his own, passionately meticulous art. The state of drunkenness that Baudelaire advocates is bittersweet, and Dutilleux’s rendering of these words into music of remarkable colour, wit and dignity at the end of his long life seems especially apt as summation. The entire, five-section cycle, also setting words by Jean Tardieu and Robert Desnos, is a celebration of the mystery of life shot through with the composer’s characteristic ambivalence towards an ungraspable present and an unknowable future. On the one hand, time is mechanical; a ticking clock inexorably pressing forwards. On the other hand, time is an illusion, and nowhere is it more tyrannical than in contemplation of the past, as memory becomes a kind of haunting – the burden to which Baudelaire alludes. To enter or induce a state of ecstacy – or drunkenness – is to free oneself from that burden so that a deeper mystery may be apprehended. For Dutilleux, this notion was not to do with wantonness but rather an artistic striving in which, as he once put it to Roger Nichols (pictured below), ‘asceticism has a distinct role to play, the artist has to renounce so many things, so many pleasures; and in any case he’s not happy unless he can find the opportunity to realise his true self.’

Dutilleux often stated that he regretted not having written more vocal music, but he was aware that his perfectionism and slowness of working would have made writing an opera, say, impractical to say the least. However, here at Hoddinott Hall, I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member to share that regret amidst the joy of hearing this gem of a piece so convincingly performed. With the exceptional playing of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under conductor, Pascal Rophé, together with the lovely musical intelligence of soprano, Elizabeth Atherton, the work glowed with a vigour belying the advanced years of its composer. Not a note is wasted in Le temps l’horloge (2006-9), nor a vocal inflection or colour ill-judged; the inclusion of accordion and harpsichord lent a piquant humour almost redolent – dare I suggest – of Poulenc to an already sumptuously Gallic, post-Debussyan soundworld. Written for the American soprano, Renée Fleming, the work originally comprised three movements, with the Baudelaire setting and a preceding orchestral interlude added during the following two years, when Dutilleux was already past 90.
Kenneth Hesketh © http://www.kennethhesketh.co.uk/
Kenneth Hesketh © http://www.kennethhesketh.co.uk/
This concert, organised in collaboration with the Cardiff University School of Music, formed an eloquent tribute to the composer in his centenary year, and to his importance for a generation of French and British composers, now long established in their own right. Leading up to Dutilleux’s superb cycle we heard pieces by four who knew him from Tanglewood in the US and/or elsewhere: two British and two French composers, of whom all bar Kenneth Hesketh were present in the hall.

Eric Tanguy and Thierry Pécou both featured in the first half. Tanguy’s Affetuoso, ‘In memoriam Henri Dutilleux’ was written upon news of Dutilleux’s death in 2013, but seeks to honour him through thanksgiving rather than grief. Building from a chorale-like opening to a strongly three-in-a-bar, ‘affectionate’ tumult, Rophé drove the piece to its third and final climax with a riotous orchestral blaze. By contrast, Pécou’s two-part Les liaisons magneétiques (‘The Magnetic Connections’), closed the half in an idiom of wide-ranging influence that owed as much to Milhaud and the Stravinsky of The Soldier’s Tale as it did to more lyrical French writing. Here the instrumentation comprised a chamber ensemble of six wind, two percussion and nine strings, with a variety of grunts and growls off-set by glissandi, harmonics and a pounding, animalistic bass drum.

Julian Anderson’s Shir Hashrim proved the highlight of the half, sandwiched between the two Frenchmen. The work, written in 2001 and dedicated to Dutilleux on his 85th birthday, is a setting, in Hebrew, of the Song of Songs for soprano and chamber orchestra. Here, Atherton and musicians were luminous in conveying this seductive score, with its lush colouration and trailing vocal melismas. Now shimmering from within a lake of rippling reflections, now a comet with a fiery, harmonic tail, the soprano was by turns semi-engulfed by and ringing clearly above Anderson’s rich, surging textures. The effect was both magical and strongly rigorous, as might be expected from one of the most respected and admired composers working in the UK today.
Left to right: Roger Nichols, Thierry Fischer, Henri Dutilleux, Jeremy Huw Williams, Kenneth Hesketh - Photo: Peter Whittaker
L to R: Roger Nichols, (Thierry Fischer), Henri Dutilleux, (Jeremy Huw Williams), Kenneth Hesketh © Peter Whittaker
Of course, for any composer, the manipulation of time is stock-in-trade. Whilst Le temps l’horloge demonstrated a clear high point of mastery, impeccably balancing form and content, Hesketh’s Graven Image which preceded it was impressively assured in its forward momentum and interplay of foreground and background, transparency and saturation. There is no ‘narrative’ to the piece as such, which was inspired by the medieval device of memento mori, in which the portrait of a living person is counterbalanced by depiction of their skull in reference to the transience of life. Nonetheless, Hesketh’s score conveys a rich sense of journeying through layered timbres which build and then subside without unravelling or draining the underlying harmonic and motivic tensions. The result is as subtly dark as it is exultant, and Rophé’s BBC NOW gave the piece a compelling reading. Hesketh has spoken of being transformed by his encounters with Dutilleux. I can think of no finer centenary tribute to the distinguished composer than this exciting piece, which led us into Dutilleux’s ‘Time and the Clock’ through its own dynamic reflections on mortality.

The concert was recorded for March broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now.

BBC NOW: #Dutilleux100, Debussy, Mozart Requiem

Live | BBC NOW: Dutilleux 100, Debussy, Mozart Requiem
 Dutilleux © Guy Vivien
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, January 22 2016

Dutilleux – Métaboles
Dutilleux – Sur le même accord
Debussy, compl. Orledge – Nocturne (UK premiere)
Mozart, compl. Süssmayr – Requiem Mass in D minor K. 626

BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales
Conductor – Thomas Søndergård
Violin – Akiko Suwanai / Soprano – Rebecca Evans / Mezzo-soprano – Jennifer Johnston / Tenor – Timothy Robinson / Bass – Alastair Miles

Henri Dutilleux so nearly lived to see his 100th birthday, which would have fallen on the exact day of this concert, January 22nd 2016. But he died three years ago, in May 2013, and so we are left to honour his centenary without him – and without that other distinguished, long-lived French composer: Dutilleux’s nemesis, Pierre Boulez, who died earlier this month aged 90. Of the two, seemingly antithetical, figures, it is of course the latter who is far better known, and as much for his brilliance as a conductor as for his youthful polemics, institutional reach and uncompromising modernism. Yet Dutilleux, too, was a fastidious composer, subjecting pieces to lengthy processes of revision to the despair of publishers and commissioners. He too – albeit far more overtly heir to Debussy and Ravel – shared an obsession with matters timbral and textural and, in his own way, has proved highly influential: it is notable, for instance, that his pupils should have included the renowned ‘spectralist’, Gérard Grisey,* for whom the fundamental, acoustic properties of sound (as opposed to, say, mathematics or other underlying principles) were all-important creative drivers.

In Dutilleux’s music, mystery and illusion abound; not simply as atmosphere or ‘impressionist’ effect, but embedded deep within the structure. Timbre and harmony become inextricably linked, for example, so that it becomes hard to know precisely where one stops and the other begins, especially in dense textures. Each of his two pieces in this imaginative, beautifully performed ‘concert of two halves’ from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales showed how Dutilleux’s chords shimmer with overtones particular to his carefully chosen instrumental groupings, creating layers of contrapuntal mirage. The first, Métaboles, dates from 1962-4 and Dutilleux has described it as ‘where I [first] succeeded in fully realising myself in music.’ Almost a concerto for orchestra, the array of colours is astonishing as Dutilleux ‘metabolises’ or evolves his material through five, continuous but distinctively orchestrated sections. Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård and his fine players rose to the work’s many challenges, bringing an architectural sweep as well as attention to detail to the evocatively titled ‘Incantatoire’, ‘Linéaire’, ‘Obsessionnel’ (this incorporating a perhaps ironic nod to certain serial techniques), ‘Torpide’ and the final ‘Flamboyant’. The opening section’s unisons alone might have proved exposing of tuning vagaries were not these musicians so adept at listening and responding to one another.

Henri Dutilleux © Guy Vivien
Beguiling stuff indeed, and passionately carried into Sur le même accord; a ‘Nocturne’ for violin and orchestra which was written for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 2001-2. Dutilleux was drawn to the ineffable realms of night as he was to Proust and Baudelaire, and here he applies his beloved ‘progressive growth’ to a short meditation ‘On the same Chord’, as the title suggests. From her opening phrase, soloist Akiko Suwanai proved supplely responsive to Dutilleux’s flowing lines and sonorities, and there was some wonderful baton-passing to and from members of an orchestra on superb form (notably, with Principal Cellist, Alice Neary). In places, the piece calls to mind the sensual harmonic rhythms of Berg’s Violin Concerto, and Søndergård / Suwanai articulated a subtle sense of pulse throughout; as they did in the ensuing UK premiere of Debussy’s Nocturne for violin and orchestra (1892-6), one of many works started and then abandoned by Dutilleux’s radical predecessor. We can thank Robert Orledge for so adroitly gathering the sketches together and fashioning them into a completed work, in this as in many other cases (most substantially, Debussy’s unfinished opera on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher). Here there was languor and bitter sweetness of expression as might be expected, but also open textures and playful swerves that cleansed the palate after the rich Dutilleux.

The completion of works by deceased composers always raises issues of authorial control, and no example has proved more contentious than that of Mozart’s Requiem, famously left unfinished on the great man’s untimely death in 1791. That this centenary celebration should be headlined by a requiem might look odd on paper, but it was not inappropriate following what amounts to the passing of an entire era of postwar composers in recent years. Here, a downsized orchestra was joined by a reduced BBC National Chorus of Wales (superbly primed by Artistic Director, Adrian Partington) and four excellent soloists to perform the most longlived version of Mozart’s swansong: by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Since the 1950s onwards brought increased scrutiny of his efforts, poor Süssmayr has been scorned and reviled by many, only to enjoy a recent rehabilitation: Stephen Oliver once wrote that ‘a glow-worm would be a better composer’ than Mozart’s hapless pupil, and that the Requiem has ‘the feel of a massive ancient cathedral held together with bits of plastic’. By contrast, the Dunedin Consort’s 2014 reconstruction of the work’s first ever performance in David Black’s edition of Süssmayr’s version has attracted wide acclaim.

Still from Miloš Formon’s 1984 film 'Amadeus'
Still from Miloš Formon’s 1984 film ‘Amadeus’
However, few listeners care about the wrangling of experts – just as internecine contemporary-composer warfare passes them by. Regarding the Mozart, they’d prefer simply to be moved, terrified, comforted and ultimately uplifted by what they hear – and, for those in the packed St David’s Hall, the BBC NOW did not disappoint. Søndergård’s tempi felt spot-on and his balancing of the various forces was well judged in the space, for all that the soloists were positioned behind the orchestra and in front of the onstage chorus. In any case, the last-minute inclusion of Rebecca Evans’ clear and lustrous soprano could not but help elevate the performance to another plane. Mezzo, Jennifer Johnston; tenor, Timothy Robinson and bass, Alastair Miles rose admirably to match her unfussy artistry – which reached its culmination in a magnificent Lux aeterna – as did the chorus with a delivery by turns threatening and mournfully beseeching, but always clear and vigorously sung. Of the orchestra, with its lovely strings and darkened woodwind and brass, trombonist Donal Bannister deserves special mention for his sonorous Tuba mirum duet with Miles.

From the processional grandeur of the Introitus and the Handel-inspired double fugue of the Kyrie, to the angst-ridden fury of the Dies Irae (so reminiscent of Don Giovanni’s casting into hell); the poignant lament of the Lachrimosa and the surging hope of the Agnus Dei, Mozart’s Requiem combines a neo-baroque sensibility with a forward-looking, urgently emotional drama. Whatever the truth surrounding its commissioning, uncompleted writing and many subsequent versions, it has become lodged in the popular mind as signifying the mystery of death itself. As BBC NOW and the Cardiff University School of Music continue to celebrate the life and achievements of Dutilleux this spring, it’s worth recalling that, however different in temperament he may have been, the Frenchman shared with Mozart a profound humanism that wasn’t reliant upon religious faith, but was deeply rooted in the resilience of, and restless search for authenticity within, the human spirit.

*  Tragically, Grisey died in 1998, aged just 52.

David Bowie: a Personal Tribute

The Bowie Tribute | The Thin White Years 1975-85
Art work by Dean Lewis
Published as part of a Wales Arts Review tribute just after the death of David Bowie.

Fifty years ago, following the death of Edgar Varèse, Pierre Boulez wrote in tribute to the great man:
‘You have the deliberate wildness of the animal that does not go with the herd, the rarity of the diamond in a unique mount … Your legend is deeply rooted in our era; we can scrub the chalk (and water) circle of those magic or ambiguous words “experimental”, “precursor”, “pioneer”…’

These words might equally apply to Boulez himself and, especially, to David Bowie; both are recently deceased titans of contemporary culture about whom I’m currently finding it hard to think without turning my mind to the other – however unlikely that may sound, given their differences. Boulez’ death (5 January) had already prompted reflection on my own musical life, since my first amazement at the sensuous, distilled beauty of Le marteau sans maître as a teenaged guitarist-composer. In those days I was blithely unaware of any musical ‘rules’, and didn’t understand that high modernism and other kinds of high fuck-off-ism represented by, say, punk rock, were not supposed to mix. So I’ve felt a contradictory sadness, too, at both the fact and passing of Boulez’ controversial era: that angry, damaged but brilliant generation of postwar avant-garde composers, who so exquisitely yet tyrannically held ‘new music’ hostage, and of whom Boulez was just about the last representative (happily, Betsy Jolas, for one, is still with us).

But, at age 90, and with his ill-health well known if unpublicised, Boulez’ death was hardly a shock. How different was Bowie’s, coming completely out of the blue, and just two days after the release of Blackstar on January 8, his 69th birthday. The album and accompanying videos seemed to me a return to superbly enigmatic, melancholy form. Boulez may have been a thrilling discovery as a young musician, but I grew up with Bowie. Until the Berlin years, and especially “Heroes” – I was twelve when it came out in ’77 – it wasn’t so much his music that grabbed me as his sheer, unapologetic otherness. Bowie’s eyes reminded me of my mother’s following surgery for a detached retina. Except that his felt curiously less alien than hers, regardless of his sci-fi personas, and seemed to suggest infinitely greater understanding of my own burgeoning, ambivalent sexuality.

Listening to ‘Lazarus’ on Blackstar, I’m reminded of the ironic spirit of “Heroes” – and especially the fractured soundscapes of that album’s non-vocal trilogy: ‘Sense of Doubt’, ‘Moss Garden’ and ‘Neuköln’. These were imbued with what I imagined to be the defiant but flat-feeling decadence of West Berlin during the Cold War – and they seemed to articulate a kind of hollow yearning within my psyche, just as Boulez would later, for a while, offer a jewelled respite from anguish.

Bowie showed us that identity can be what you make it. That the binary opposites we fall into so unthinkingly – of high-low, popular-serious (culture), male-female (gender), left-right (politics), young-old (age) – are really only products of existential terror denied. As Boulez pushed uncompromising extremes of the senses and synapses, Bowie danced through them as shape-shifter extraordinaire; always and never at home in his unique, ‘unbearable lightness of being’. That he could share that with so many so profoundly – through music, art, theatre, film, fashion, and now his own death – makes him a phenomenon I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of again.

Monday 18 April 2016

Highlights of 2015 | Music & Opera

Highlights 2015 | Steph Power: Music & Opera
BOC The Ice Break, credit Adam Fradgley
As music editor of Wales Arts Review, it’s always heartening to get a sense of the sheer spirit of musical endeavour and achievement across the country, mustered yearly in the face of shrinking budgets – and across an ever-broadening spectrum of genres from mainstream indie pop to the classical canon; from sonic art to the post-minimal avant-garde. I’d like to extend thanks to the directors who have written about their personal 2015 highlights for the Wales Arts Review classical music feature. To add to theirs and our critics’ words, here are just a few of my own stand-out events and performances from Wales and beyond. This year, I’m focusing on contemporary music and/or new productions:

Firstly, the wonderfully ambitious culmination of Mark Bowden’s composer’s residency with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales in A Violence of Gifts; a work which saw the composer successfully join forces with another, major Welsh creative voice in poet Owen Sheers – and at a time when large-scale orchestral commissions everywhere are becoming increasingly rare.

On that point, the continued re-invigoration of Tŷ Cerdd, Music Centre Wales, is proving greatly positive for the future health of Welsh and Wales-based contemporary work: 2015 saw the announcement that the International Society for Contemporary Music has admitted Wales as a full national member for the first time. The ensuing range of benefits to be afforded via the new ISCM Wales will be unfolded over the coming months and years, and will include the offer for Welsh composers to submit scores alongside other nations for international performance through the ISCM platform.
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
In May, visiting Estonians showed how a relatively small nation can find ways to safeguard and encourage their composers and musicians, often against the odds. At the internationally renowned Vale of Glamorgan Festival, the Talinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir presented three generations of composers from this proud Baltic State as featured composer, Arvo Pärt, was celebrated in his 80th birthday year. Also featured in 2015 was the British-Bulgarian composer, Dobrinka Tabakova, and we were lucky to have her in residence for key days of the festival. It was a great opportunity to hear a cross-section of her beautifully wrought music which, like Pärt’s but in its own, unique way, bridges worlds of the ancient and modern.

Back to BBC NOW, the annual Composition: Wales event is going from strength to strength each spring under conductor Jac van Steen – and this autumn saw Huw Watkins become the orchestra’s new Composer in Residence. Watkins will no doubt help the continued drive to encourage Welsh contemporary music, and it will be intriguing to see what further performance and education projects he is able to support alongside Composition: Wales as his own music receives deserved, increased exposure.
BBC NOW at the BBC Proms, conducted by Xian Zhang
BBC NOW at the BBC Proms 2015, conducted by Xian Zhang
BBC NOW has recently made history as the first BBC orchestra ever to appoint a woman in a titled position: the Chinese conductor, Xian Zhang, will be a welcome, frequent visitor in Wales as the orchestra’s new Principal Guest Conductor following her successful concert with BBC NOW at the BBC Proms in July 2015. Welsh audiences will, of course, know Zhang from her more recent appearances with the Welsh National Opera orchestra, having made her pit debut with the company to great acclaim with Nabucco in 2014.

Yet again, Welsh National Opera proved a source of inspiration and world-class achievement in 2015 (watch out for two new commissions to come next year for their 70th anniversary: Figaro gets a Divorce by Elena Langer and In Parenthesis by Iain Bell, which will also commemorate World War I).
WNO Pelléas and Mélisande, credit Clive Barda
WNO Pelléas and Mélisande, credit Clive Barda
Last spring, Artistic Director David Pountney’s new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was both searingly intelligent and ravishingly beautiful, aided by an exceptional cast, and with stunning orchestral colour provided by the WNO Orchestra under Lothar Koenigs’ baton. Director Annalise Miskimmon went on to score a further, perhaps less likely, hit at WNO with her courageous production of I puritani for WNO’s  ‘madness’ season. Here – in all too timely a fashion – it was not simply the heroine but the fact of war that was held to be insane, as Miskimmon and her team cast Bellini’s Roundheads and Cavaliers as warring Protestants and Catholics in 1970s Belfast.
Staying with opera but moving further afield, I have to flag up the recent world premiere of Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas at London’s Royal Opera House.
Morgen und Abend, credit Clive Barda
RO Morgen und Abend, credit Clive Barda
It’s always encouraging to see new work commissioned for the main stage at Covent Garden (the last was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s noisily kitsch Anna Nicole, some four years ago), and Haas delivered in anticipated beguiling fashion. His music is known for hovering on that elusive, noumenal brink where sound becomes colour and vice versa. Here it took on yet further dimensions in Graham Vick’s intriguing, bleached-bare production, in an opera which explored life, death and the continuum between the two as viewed from inside/outside, beyond the grave (and, yes, the Beckett inference is deliberate).

As memorable as this was, however, my highlight beyond Wales was another opera directed by Vick; this time at his own Birmingham Opera Company, who win plaudits for bringing off in superb style an audacious, seemingly impossible project combining professional soloists and musicians with a chorus of local volunteers – who learned their challenging parts by ear.

Thirty-eight years ago, Tippett’s complex fourth opera premiered to the rolling of many critics’ eyes. Scorned as a sixties-fuelled, over-earnest attempt to get down with the kids, the visceral integrity and sheer social relevance of the work has largely been overlooked – until this year. Finally, The Ice Break was given the production it deserves, showing how a visionary staging at the right time and in the right venue can – if only in some cases and for a one-off event – prove redemptive of works once dismissed as failures.
The Ice Break, credit Adam Fradgley
BOC The Ice Break, credit Adam Fradgley
In Vick’s cleverly choreographed, industrial warehouse setting, none of us were innocent bystanders. Sited amongst the jostling, mob chorus, we swayed with their mood: now adoring the doomed black champion, Olympion (sung by Ta’u Pupu’a), now racist and hating as black and white went berserk in post-Handsworth, post-Ferguson riot. Intimate pains of love and inter-generational conflict were etched against a background of political struggle as the once-exiled Lev (Andrew Slater) was reunited with his dying wife, Nadia (Nadine Benjamin) and damaged son, Yuri (Ross Ramgobin).

The cast sang and acted superbly, allied with conductor Andrew Gourlay’s excellent City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which revealed the hitherto clouded brilliance of Tippett’s uncompromising score. While Stephanie Corley’s Gayle and Chrystal E. Williams’s Hannah made sacrifices – one fatally, the other in renewal – ultimately, breaking the ice was shown to mean breaking down barriers. As Tippett intended, and as this production powerfully showed, the challenge remains vital, exhilarating – and urgent.

BBC National Chorus of Wales: Welsh Composers, War & #Patagonia150

BBC NCW: Welsh Composers, War & #Patagonia150
Photo credit: Betina Skovbro
BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 15 November, 2015

Works by Alun Hoddinott / Grace Williams / Mervyn Burtch / Geraint Lewis / Héctor MacDonald / Mark Bowden / Paul Mealor / William Mathias

BBC National Chorus of Wales

Conductor: Adrian Partington
Piano: Christopher William / Organ: Jonathan Hope / Percussion: Andrea Porter & Matt Hardy / Trumpet: Martin Rogers

 Since Remembrance Sunday on November 8th, the people of Beirut and Paris have once again been forced in appalling fashion to join the myriads around the world who are mourning their dead and injured at the hands of madmen in thrall to a death-cult. At a time when millions are fleeing atrocities and the ravaging of their ancient civilisations, questions about the preservation, celebration and sharing of culture inevitably take on a more urgent significance – not least in the light of attacks deliberately aimed at artists, writers and now concert-goers.*

It is not so easy to separate music from world events or politics as some would prefer. Of the eight pieces featured in this impressively performed BBC National Chorus of Wales concert of Welsh and Patagonian composers, three had a timely, outright connection with war. A fourth – We Have Found a Better Land by Mark Bowden, here receiving its world premiere – marked a contemporary response to the stories of those who left Wales 150 years ago on board the tea-clipper Mimosa in an ironic, but ultimately successful, attempt to preserve their cultural heritage and identity. Crucially, following a research visit to Patagonia, Bowden interwove these stories with tales of the indigenous Tehuelche people who helped to ensure the survival of what, to them, would have been strange, alien incomers from some unimaginable, distant land – before themselves being subject to genocide by marauding Argentinian military during the 1870s ‘Conquest of the Desert’.
An early settler in Patagonia with people of the Tehuelche. Credit Catrin Rogers.
An early settler in Patagonia with people of the Tehuelche. Catrin Rogers.
Bowden’s a cappella, sixteen-minute piece, performed in the second half, contains strong resonances of the folk-creation themes featured in A Violence of Gifts, and showed the further evolution of this thoughtful vocal composer in its six sections, balancing narrative and description through an imaginative use of solos, semi-chorus and divisi SATB. Bowden compiled the text from various diaries, letters, stories and poems which together paint a vivid picture of hope, disappointment and change against a suitably ambivalent geopolitical backdrop. Most affecting were his quietly unsettling dissonance – with the singers doing well to negotiate unfamiliar chords – and the quasi-antiphonal passages which detailed the uncertain progress of the voyage itself (Section 2), followed by the discovery that ‘The region is nothing like we read or heard. We have been told tremendous lies’ (Section 4).

As Bowden captures very well, one of the most deeply embedded human instincts at times of shared disaster, joy or fear is to join together in song, and Wales is justly famous for the robust choral tradition which has sustained its industrial and rural communities for generations. However, notwithstanding a frustrating general tendency to ghettoise performances of ‘Welsh composers’ rather than simply integrate them in everyday programming, none of those featured this evening were or are nationalist in any narrow sense, nor restricted to clichéd ideas of tradition; indeed, in various ways, each reflects an international as well as more domestic outlook.

The work that proved most directly poignant post-Beirut and Paris was Geraint Lewis’s The Souls of the Righteous, which was originally composed for the memorial service of William Mathias at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1992. Here – so soon after July this year, when the piece was performed at St Paul’s to mark the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings – it transcended any religious context to convey a universal dignity in sorrow courtesy of some fine, heartfelt singing from the assembled Chorus; and this despite the odd, too-brisk tempo adopted by conductor and NCW artistic director, Adrian Partington.

Lewis’s piece came at the close of the first half, following a pair of equally brief, but more celebratory 1980s psalm-settings by late friends and colleagues, Alun Hoddinott and Mervyn Burtch, which framed the most substantial work of the evening, Grace Williams’s 1973 Ave maris stella. Burtch’s Psalm 150 (1989) was the more extrovert in both character and performance; its bouncing, quirkily rhythmic piano part contrasting with the organ’s underlying portentousness in Hoddinott’s Sing a New Song (1985), which opened the concert. Between the pieces a semi-chorus stepped forward to perform the challenging Ave maris with such confidence as to make it easy to forget that the BBC NCW remains an amateur choir.

In a sense, Williams – like any Welsh composer who has struggled to find a foothold in a London-based establishment – found herself dealing with politics of a kind by default. As a woman in a male-dominated world, though uncomplaining, she found it harder still to be taken seriously and, whilst highly respected by her colleagues and by musicians today, she remains relatively unknown and vastly underrated. Though she eschewed the radicalism of serial composers, which she found ‘incredibly strange’ and counter to her essentially melodic impulses, she heard other music whilst studying with Wellesz in 1930s Vienna which undoubtedly left its mark. Like many of her works, the Ave maris belies the apparent accessibility of its romantic surface, with intense, sustained harmonic processes that need coaxing, as it were, from the inner voices outwards. Here, the semi-chorus proved highly capable despite Partington’s reluctance to allow Williams’s seascape to roil and surge as passionately as it might have, given greater room to breathe.

Of further works this evening, Héctor MacDonald’s Clyw ein Lief, O lôr (‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’: choir joined by organ and trumpet) was a further chance for audiences to hear this fourth-generation Welsh composer from Chubut province in Patagonia, whilst Paul Mealor’s In Flanders Fields extended the remembrance theme to that earlier site of atrocities in World War I, a centenary ago. War – and the hideous slaughter of children and innocents that it always entails – also formed the subject of the final work of the programme; at twenty minutes the longest, and the toughest in musical idiom, charting a journey from anguish to renewal.
London during the Blitz.
London during the Blitz.
This was William Mathias’s Ceremony After a Fire Raid, a setting of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem from the London Blitz, written in response to seeing a charred baby lying dead on a bombed-out street. Of his setting, Mathias wrote, ‘Although inspired by the Second World War, the poem’s meaning (for me) is reflected in events closer to our time.’ What these were he did not specify, but renewed bombing from the IRA following Bloody Sunday (1972) can hardly have been far from his thoughts – nor indeed the Vietnam War, with Nixon finally calling ceasefire on that tragedy in 1973, the year he composed the piece. Cast in three, continuous sections, it carries traces of the Stravinsky of Les Noces in its spiky vocal lines and bold, additional parts for percussion and piano – as well as (albeit mildly) reflecting the decade’s music-theatrical experimentalism, encapsulated by Peter Maxwell Davies and others.

It was in this work that Partington felt most at ease, leading the choir in vigorous rendition of Mathias’s whispers, chants and full-voiced quasi-expressionism. Some of the work’s gestures sound dated today – the circling glock and xylophone motifs, for instance, and the extended ‘drum solo’. But the integrity of the piece is undoubted in response to the kind of entirely self-made horror which humanity even now seems unable to avoid repeating.

* not to mention less well-publicised western acts of barbarism and hypocrisy such as the American hospital bombing in Kunduz, and the ignoring of the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied territories.

The concert was recorded for a forthcoming Tŷ Cerdd CD, as well as future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Header photo: Betina Skovbro

Brecon Baroque Festival 2015: Bach’s St John Passion

Brecon Baroque Festival: Bach's St John Passion
Brecon Baroque
Brecon Cathedral, 23 October 2015
J.S. Bach – St John Passion (1724)

Brecon Baroque: leader Rachel Podger
Choirs of Brecon Cathedral
Conducted by Mark Duthie
Evangelist – Nils Giebelhausen / Christus – Nicholas Gedge
Alison Hill / Robin Blaze / Giles Underwood

Earlier this month, on October 7 2015, Rachel Podger became the tenth recipient – and the first woman – to be awarded the highly prestigious Bach Prize at the Royal Academy of Music, where she is Micaela Comberti Chair of Baroque Violin. The annual award recognises an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to J.S Bach performance and/or scholarship. Needless to say, following a lifetime of dedication, Bach remains the cornerstone of Podger’s exquisite artistry. In June, she led a joint RAM/Juilliard School venture which included a concert of Bach’s music in Leipzig as part of the city’s 2015 Bachfest. How fitting, then, that her very own Brecon Baroque Festival should celebrate its tenth anniversary this year with a focus on Bach, and on Leipzig in particular, where the mature Bach wrote some of his greatest works.

Rachel Podger. Credit: Jonas Sacks
Rachel Podger. Credit: Jonas Sacks
Bach was Cantor in Leipzig for 27, sometimes stormy, always hard-pressed, years between 1723 and 1750. The first major event for which he was tasked with producing music was Good Friday, 1724, when the resulting St John Passion was performed in liturgical sequence as part of a church service. In Brecon, nearly 300 years later, the piece launched Podger’s festival at the town’s cathedral – which happens to be dedicated to St John the Evangelist. Perhaps the chamber instrumental ensemble and somewhat larger church choir gathered on this occasion might reflect the scale of forces available to Bach in Leipzig – although the great man would no doubt be stunned by the modern players’ virtuosity.* At any rate, Podger’s exceptional Brecon Baroque players (here comprising double flutes and oboes, with bassoon, minimal strings and organ continuo) were joined with admirable spirit by the 43-strong Choirs of Brecon Cathedral, including local schoolchildren, and an array of superb soloists of varying international experience and renown.

It is the Evangelist who bears the greatest burden in the St John as narrator of Jesus’s harrowing journey to the cross, which Christians seem to find so paradoxically liberating. The ambivalence lies at the heart of Bach’s magnificent, oratorio-like drama which, through a succession of recitatives and arias, choruses, chorales and quick-fire exchanges, ultimately views the crucifixion through the lens of Christ’s joyfully anticipated resurrection. The tenor, Nils Giebelhausen, proved ardently capable in what is an extremely demanding, exposed role; only occasionally showing signs of vocal pushing as he guided the ‘congregation’ from the pulpit through nearly two hours of highly charged, descriptive story-telling – and sang the contrastingly plaintive tenor arias from the floor to boot.

Giebelhausen was ably supported with brisk pace-setting from the conductor, Mark Duthie, Brecon cathedral’s organist and choral director, who steered the choral sections with unassuming skill and a clear sense of direction. In places there were hints of inflexibility, where greater looseness of tempo would have helped articulate Bach’s dense polyphony and finely calibrated emotions; there was untidy haste, for example, in ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ and the final chorus, ‘Ruht wohl’, intended as a balm. However, this is a minor quibble. Overall, the performance had a stirring combination of devotional pathos and earthy brio, and the choir sang with combined accuracy and fervour. Indeed, it would have been wonderful to hear them in their true substance, perhaps raised by some means above the height of the ensemble, which they had no choice but to stand behind in the cathedral’s slender nave.

The other soloists were well-matched in the acoustic and sang with zeal. Nicholas Gedge – who grew up in Brecon, where Podger has lived for some fifteen years – brought grave dignity to the role of Jesus, balanced by the imperiousness of his fellow bass, Giles Underwood, who emerged in Part II to sing a blood-freezing Pilate and contrasting, soulful ariosos.

As good as these were, the high points came at places of especially intense vocal and instrumental interaction, as countertenor, Robin Blaze, and soprano, Alison Hill, took turns to deliver some ravishing arias, each one accompanied by a different combination of woodwind and strings. Throughout, the ensemble, led by Podger on baroque violin and viola d’amore, played with pellucid feeling for Bach’s harmonic shifts and suspensions. Blaze, currently impressing in Welsh National Opera’s Orlando, interwove lovely ornamentation with the delicate oboes in ‘Von der Stricken’ and, together with Alison McGillivray’s consummately mournful cello, brought the work to its wrenching climax at ‘Es ist vollbracht!’. Meanwhile, Hill and the two flutes made a sound to soften the very stones of the building in her first aria, ‘Ich folge dir’; oboe was added for Part II’s keening ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’ at the death of Christ.

If only Bach had written more for these solo vocal parts in his subsequent revisions of the work. But, for all the adverse comparison to 1727’s lengthier, more intellectually weighty St Matthew Passion – not to mention more recent controversies regarding supposed anti-Semitism in the libretto** – Bach’s St John Passion remains one of the great pinnacles of the sacred canon. Surely fewer openings anywhere can match the sustained hair-raising of ‘Herr, unser Herrscher’ which, in its combined immediacy and layered, theological tension, throws down the expressive gauntlet for the ensuing drama. Brecon Baroque stayed true to both aspects – and presented the work in a community context which made it all the more intimate and inclusive.

* In 1730, Bach ruefully observed of the professional musicians supplied by Leipzig Town Council: ‘Modesty forbids me to speak at all truthfully of their qualities and musical knowledge. Nevertheless it must be remembered that they are partly emeriti and partly not at all in such exercitio as they should be.’

** Richard Taruskin, for example, has condemned the St John for portraying the Jews alone as guilty of deicide, although Michael Marissen has pointed to evidence that Bach did nothing to emphasise any anti-Judaic sentiment in the original text, which is of unclear authorship, but based on the Gospel According to St John, 18-19.

BBC NOW: Watkins, Elgar & Rachmaninov’s ‘The Bells’

Live | BBC NOW: Watkins, Elgar & Rachmaninov's 'The Bells'
Photo credit: Betina Skovbro
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 3 October 2015

Stravinsky: Fireworks
Watkins: London Concerto
Borodin: Prince Igor – Polvtsian Dances
Elgar: Overture ‘Cockaigne (In London Town)’
Rachmaninov: The Bells

BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales
Conductor – Thomas Søndergård
Chorus Musical Director – Adrian Partington
Violin – Malin Broman / Bassoon – Rachel Gough / Harp – Hannah Stone / Soprano – Anastasia Kalagina / Tenor – John Daszak / Bass – Mikhail Petrenko

There are many fallacies wrapped up in our love affair with the idea of a pantheon of ‘great composers’, and they are often contradictory. For instance, we continue to rate the importance of composers from history according to their success in forging influential new paths, while snubbing those of our own time who are deemed experimental. And yet few composers actively set out to blaze a trail, and some of the most popular and enduring have shown little interest in innovation per se. Of the five, diverse composers featured in this BBC National Orchestra of Wales season-opener in Cardiff, three may be cited as cases in point: Elgar, Rachmaninov and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s newly appointed, brilliantly accomplished Composer in Association, Huw Watkins, for whom the evening was in part an official welcome and introduction.

The concert offered a generous, off-beat stylistic sweep, balancing the overtly populist with an intense main event in Rachmaninov’s The Bells, and bringing together Russian and British composers from the late 19th century to the present day. Stravinsky’s Fireworks (1908) opened proceedings with a short, celebratory flare of colour under Principal Conductor, Thomas Søndergård. Composed as a wedding present to the daughter of his beloved teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, the Stravinsky is really a piece of slightly wonky juvenilia, chiefly important as a sketch for his lush first ballet, The Firebird.*

Huw Watkins. Photo credit: www.operaomnia.co.uk
Huw Watkins. Photo credit: www.operaomnia.co.uk
Watkins’ London Concerto which followed was equally, if more quietly, dazzling in its orchestral palette – but proved far more substantial in breadth and disciplined invention. Cast in five movements as a kind of concerto grosso or sinfonia concertante, the work was named for its 2005 centenary commissioners, the London Symphony Orchestra, but has had to wait until now for its deserved second performance. No doubt this is partly due to the unusualness of its engaging solo trio of violin, bassoon and harp (persuasively played by Malin Broman, Rachel Gough and Hannah Stone). Watkins’ handling of form was particularly impressive, with a dynamic and, at times, welcomingly astringent use of harmony coupled with strong contrapuntal writing. With two movements devoted to orchestra alone, many fascinating partnerships unfolded between the soloists and orchestral players to create a tapestry which would reward repeated listenings without losing its direct appeal.

The other London piece of the concert was Elgar’s characterful Cockaigne Overture (1900-01), which opened the second half. Here, Søndergård conveyed a sense of proportion and restrained lyricism, but skated thinly over the score’s latent ambivalence and volcanic fire. Whilst Elgar is too often wrongly pigeon-holed as stiff and heavy with the ‘nobilmente’ designation he used for the first time in this score (sketches for the ‘Enigma’ Variations aside), here the performance also gave few hints of Elgar’s equal weight and wry sparkle. Ironically, following its premiere, Cockaigne had been dismissed by the critic Charles Maclean as having ‘an excess of fancy’ and paying ‘too little attention to form’. But perhaps we have all the grounds we need to dismiss such remarks as callow regression from one who also opined that women’s suffrage was a ‘truly nefarious cause’.

Seated high up behind the orchestra, the BBC National Chorus of Wales sat patiently awaiting their two daunting encounters with the Russian language. The first – the ‘Polvtsian Dances’ from Borodin’s unfinished opera, Prince Igor – drew cheers from the audience in closing the first half. However, it was the second which drew greater Slavic vocal character from the eager massed forces, in the form of Rachmaninov’s magnificent choral symphony. The Bells was written in 1912-13, on the cusp of World War I, and the 1917 October Revolution which would sweep the Bolsheviks to power in Russia and precipitate the bourgeois Rachmaninov’s flight from his motherland, never to return.

The tolling of bells and the intoning of the Dies Irae held enormous significance for Rachmaninov, and both come together in this secular setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s intense, brooding poem in Konstantin Balmont’s narrative translation. As the chorus and orchestra dug deep, Søndergård deftly steered their journey from the light ‘Silver Sleigh Bells’ of the 1st movement to the dark, ‘Mournful Iron Bells’ of the final 4th with the aid of three superb soloists: soprano, Anastasia Kalagina; tenor, John Daszak; and the wonderfully reverberant bass, Mikhail Petrenko. Together – and with the exquisite lament of Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer’s cor anglais – they lent solemn authority to a performance which proved, appropriately enough, the ringing highlight of the evening.

* It will be interesting to see what, if any, resemblance Fireworks passes to a piece Stravinsky wrote for an entirely more sombre purpose in Rimsky’s funeral, 1909: long thought lost, the work has recently been discovered in the form of a set of orchestral parts found in the library of the St Petersburg Conservatoire.

This performance formed part of a Cardiff-wide celebration of Rachmaninov spanning BBC NOW to the Welsh National Opera and Philharmonia orchestras, St David’s Hall to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.