If Bach had been a Beekeeper
In Nomine (after Purcell)
Jesus Blood Never Failed Me yet
The Sinking of the Titanic [with Aphex Twin Remix]
From Egils Saga [London premiere]
Rúni Brattaberg (bass)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 9 December, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Forgive me if this review takes a non-musical slant. It will be criticism, as much about the presentation of the music as the music itself. There were no programmes for this concert, just a photocopied sheet with the bare order of pieces and list of performers. Just two days earlier the Sinfonietta had given a concert of Mason’s ChaplinOperas with a full programme and, although not a full text, copies of the libretto in the foyer and a link to the Sinfonietta’s website where they could be downloaded, Gavin Bryars was given remarkably short shrift. As such I would regard it as an audience disaster.
I know the idea is to regard Bryars as a “cult” and treat this concert like a rock gig (oh my! they even let people come into the auditorium with cold drinks in plastic containers), but even though words (in Jesus’ Blood and From Egil’s Saga) were displayed on a screen above the players – in the new work both in Icelandic and English translation (courtesy Penguin Classics) – and Bryars covered the extraordinarily minimal (for the Sinfonietta, at least) stage changes with his own introductions, this was not enough. Or, at least, not for a lasting memory of the concert.
So, no points for presentation. The following – important – information has been gleaned from the BBC Radio 3 and Eastern Orchestral Board websites, co-commissioners of From Egil’s Saga. Indeed the choice of text – the saga that tells of Icelandic hero Egil who also came to Eastern England and was able to assuage enemy Eric Bloodaxe with one of his great poems – was determined because of its connection with the Eastern counties. Bryars sets four sections, in dark-hued orchestrations leaving out violins and relying on the lower end of the other instruments (bass clarinet, not clarinet etc) and this London première followed five performances across the length and breadth of the Eastern counties (Cambridge on 11 November, then Southwell, Norwich, Tilbury – the baggage hall in the ferry terminal, no less, presumably awaiting the arrival of a Viking longship! – before Hull on 25 November-).
Richly set for distinctive Faeroe Island bass Rúni Brattaberg, clearly from Viking stock himself, this is a resonant work that displays typical Bryars traits – slow development of repeated themes and subtle use of amplification and synthesised sounds (courtesy, again, of Sound Intermedia). I wondered if the live choir (the Crouch End Festival Chorus) was really necessary, or whether their small contribution could have been consigned to tape or computer.
But in essence this didn’t extend our understanding of Bryars. His two most famous pieces – which shared a platform at their premières in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in December 1972 – were heard in shortened forms; both can last from 20 minutes (as here) to 74 minutes, or more, for Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and 15 minutes (with the Aphex Twin remix) to 60 minutes for The Sinking of the Titanic. Both use hymns – the first in a recording by a down-and-out recorded in the Waterloo area, while the Titanic piece, Bryars explained, is based on the hymn “Autumn” that the band on board was reported to have played as people jumped for their lives, right up to the moment the string sextet was engulfed (Bryars having assumed that the two pianists wouldn’t have been able to drag their instruments on deck to have joined in). The slow mournful progressions of both works have their mesmeric intensity and here lasted just long enough.
The other Byrars piece was his Purcell tercentenary work In Nomine, here on modern instruments rather than the viols of its original conception (when it was played by Fretwork), which made up the opening part of the concert along with rather under-powered performances of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Passion and Illusion (my comparison being the home-grown team of the Tallin Chamber Orchestra under Tonu Kaljuste) and perhaps the most intriguing piece of the whole concert, Arvo Pärt’s Wenn Bach Bienen Gezüchtet Hätte – listed here as If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper. This little known piece (as far as I’m aware only recorded by Neeme Järvi and the Philharmonia for Chandos) is an intriguing gem, forming a bridge between the composer’s iconoclast early music and the tintinnabulation-style of his later spiritual soundscapes. Even if not particularly well characterised here, there seemed to be more musical meat than in the rest of the programme that eventually led – in its all-too-samey way – to soporific torpor.