Diana Burrell – The Hours

Compline [world premiere]

Interspersed with plainchant hymns, responsories and antiphons

Kirsten Cowie (electronics)
Miguel Fernandes (cello)
Bartosz Glowacki (accordion)
James Gough & Peter Holder (organ)
Christopher Redgate (oboe)

Royal Academy of Music Chamber Ensemble & Singers
Jonathan Mann

Schola Plainchant
Felix Yeung

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 27 October, 2011
Venue: St Marylebone Parish Church, London

Three concerts spread across an afternoon and evening at St Marylebone Church gave a chance to hear the recent work of Diana Burrell, a cycle of pieces inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours. Burrell’s musical treatments of what she describes as “one of the richest and most lovely treasures of the church” eschew the religious texts in favour of an abstract treatment of their themes and connections. Each of the works presented can stand alone; indeed this was the first time that all eight works have been played together (Compline being a world premiere), though hearing them in such quick succession perhaps pointed out some of the limitations of Burrell’s musical voice.

At the centre of the cycle is the organ. Almost every piece makes extensive use of it and its interplay with the varied ensembles of the different sections is significant to the most interesting passages. St Marylebone’s organ is a great and powerful instrument and Burrell makes mesmerising use of it in the sixth piece, None. None in the ninth hour, the hour of Christ’s death, and Burrell summons the greatest moment of the cycle by asking the organist to switch off the instrument while holding a huge discord. The effect is to slowly drain the bellows of air and leave the organ sound to melt away seemingly into the distance. Here, Burrell’s eclectic choice of percussion is hugely effective, with jangling bells heightening the climaxes.

Elsewhere in the cycle, Burrell’s choice of instrumentation is fruitful. The third piece, Prime, pits cello against accordion in one of the shorter spans – he accordion stands in for the organ, and in this instance cellist Miguel Fernandes’s beautiful tone made the most of the singing line rising above Bartosz Glowacki’s agitated accordion part. The second piece, Lauds, sets the organ against a pre-recorded and electronically distorted morphing organ sound and, given that Lauds marks the daybreak and early morning, the result brings to mind a state of flitting between consciousness and troubled sleep. The fourth piece, Terce, mixes organ and accordion effectively, pointing out the similarities between the instruments but having the organ assert its power with some building-shaking low rumbles.

Elsewhere, however, there are considerable longueurs and dips in inspiration. The first piece, Vigils, and the penultimate, Vespers, proved on a first hearing to be frustratingly episodic. It’s also often hard to square the musical representation of the hours with what Burrell writes eloquently in her programme note and, while she might prefer not to guide the listener too closely, a little more explanation of her musical response to the religious texts and images would offer a way into the scores that isn’t always forthcoming from the music. The occasional splashes of unusual percussion, for example, seem by their placement to have some significance, but without an idea of what they could represent they often seem arbitrary or, at times, unintentionally amusing. It’s clear that the texts of the Liturgy of the Hours have prompted some highly personal responses from Burrell, and placing between them hymns, responsories and antiphons, sung from a concealed room in the church points out the variance in her approach to the plainchant examples of old. But although the feeling remains that these works are not consistently interesting enough, then further study may reveal the hidden depths undoubtedly concealed within.

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