Chromatin [World premiere]
Missa super LHomme Armé
Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21
Gareth Malone (tenor)
Gabriel Vick (speaker)
Catherine Hopper (mezzo-soprano)
Maryse Boiteau (dancer)
Royal Academy of Music Chamber Ensemble Dominic Grier
Director Karen Rabinowitz
Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt
Reviewed: 21 April, 2005
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London
Aside from bearing similarities regarding size and structure, the works featured on this bill shared a number of stylistic and thematic concerns. Following Schoenberg’s lead, “Chromatin” and “Missa super L’Homme Armé are both scored for chamber ensemble and voice; importantly a fluid chamber ensemble in which instrumental pairings change throughout each piece, and where individual musicians are required to play a variety of similar instruments. This results in playful, colourful music where the sound-making possibilities of a small ensemble are maximised. Stylistically, Chromatin shares the edgy paranoia inherent of “Pierrot Lunaire” and “Missa super L’Homme Armé” points instead to Schoenberg’s examination of cabaret by tearing through all manner of musical genres.
Royal Academy of Music composer and, we are told, call-centre employee, John Douglas Templeton (born 1982) invokes Spectralism with his seriously titled Chromatin for flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano and tenor. Based upon ‘wound response’ (sic), a poem by J. H. Prynne, the piece began with a short spoken introduction from tenor Gareth Malone roughly concerning something ‘sharp’ and ‘precise’ from memory (the exact transcription was not included in the programme notes). What followed was anything but sharp – muffled, blurred notes dragged out from all instruments, most noticeably a breathy gasp from bass clarinet. From there the lines were pulled taut, where they remained for the duration of the ten-minute piece – fine cello slices sitting dissonantly beside high violin whines; short flurries of melody duelled between flute and clarinet; instruments stepping aside for dynamic but controlled vocal incantations. The piece was dissected midway by some lumbering, low piano notes, Malone moving to sing beside the piano as pianist Neil Georgeson hammered more viciously. “Chromatin” was an enjoyable, jagged musical experience indicative of a composer who describes himself as a poetic “post-serial modernist”.
Peter Maxwell Davies describes “Missa super L’Homme Armé as starting as an exercise – a completion of incomplete sections of an anonymous fifteenth-century mass. Along the way, “other possibilities suggested themselves”. These other possibilities are in fact the chief concern of the work, which is a wild and rowdy ride through musical history encompassing rock, pop, jazz and honky-tonk. Opening with the original “L’Homme Armé” song, it is immediately twisted into contemporary form with loud percussion and blasts from all foreground instruments. Brief pauses reveal a rich, low organ drone, a longer pause the sign for Gabriel Vick to appear in the wings, dressed as a nun, to start reciting. Maxwell Davies’s pastiche includes straightforward organ counterpoint lurched into a jarring repetitive motif reminiscent of a needle caught in a record groove. The work concluded with an impassioned burst from Vick, who tore off his habit and leapt off the stage to riotous rag-piano from Joseph Middleton.
After these vigorous, obscure pieces, Schoenberg’s seminal work perhaps suffered for being so … seminal. One wondered whether it was intended as tragedy or farce, or both. Nonetheless, it was more than dutifully performed by the RAM Chamber Ensemble, and one got the feeling that some of these young performers were relishing sticking their teeth into such a titan piece of modernism. Catherine Hopper possessed a fine voice more than capable of mastering Schoenberg’s tricky ‘Sprechstimme’, although I would have liked more of the chilling commitment that was most ably demonstrated at livelier moments and particularly at the commencement of sections. Furthermore, she was frequently hidden from the audience by her large music-stand positioned at mouth-level. Dmitry Rasul-Kareyev and Shulah Oliver did particularly well in switching from clarinet to bass clarinet and violin to viola, and pianist Middleton superbly delivered Schoenberg’s frighteningly calm dissonance. The piece was enlivened visually by mime from dancer Maryse Boiteau, a highly skilled and charismatic performer who frequently stole the limelight (metaphorically and literally). Conductor Dominic Grier handled the myriad moods of the evening skilfully, his understanding of Schoenberg both subtle and commanding.