Music for Stillness [Just this Day 2011]

String Quartet No.2 – The Practice of Meditation
I saw my lady weep; Fairwell Fancy [lute solo]
Robert Jones
If in this flesh
Da Pacem Domine
Henry Lawes
O solitude, my sweetest choice
Scottish tune [lute solo]
Fratres [version for string quartet]
Littlemore Tractus

Dame Emma Kirkby (soprano) & Jakob Lindberg (lute)

Ceruti String Quartet [Peter Nall & Megan Pound (violins), Anthony Byrne (viola) & William Routledge (cello)]

The Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields
Andrew Earis

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 23 November, 2011
Venue: St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London

Each year, as the winter nights draw in and the smell of log- and coal-fires fill the country air, the organisers of “Just this Day” select a single date with a single theme to focus the mind and enrich the soul. This year, the fifth, celebrated the essential quality of stillness; last year it was silence. The programme presented a discussion on Positive Silence followed by a guided tour of the National Gallery’s pictures chosen for the quality and stillness that they convey. The day’s events culminated in a short concert that embodied the theme of quiet and meditative reflection.

From the start noise-pollution from passing emergency vehicles combined with the general hubbub of a London tourist attraction outside begged the question why should St Martin-in-the-Fields continue to be the chosen venue. However the well-suited acoustic found favour, enough to forgive even the jazz-band’s tones emanating from the crypt.

True to a request to not applaud between pieces, the concert moved slickly from piece to piece – some tightening and some releasing the degree of stillness as the evening progressed. More than half of the pieces were by Arvo Pärt. His music seems to embrace the theme of the day to a tee. The Beatitudes, composed in 1990, is for organ and four-part choir and one of his few pieces to English words. The members of the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields, as its resident choir, are clearly familiar with liturgical settings, were the perfect choice. Andrew Earis expertly judged the slow gradual build-up allowing the silence between each section to fill with the reverberation of the notes just sung. Together with the well-chosen stops by the unnamed organist, this was a performance to be savoured.

David Stoll’s ‘The Practice of Meditation’ comes from his Second String Quartet written about eleven years go. Stoll’s background is as an educator through theatre and music. This movement opens with stark and bare harmonies before giving way to warmer tonalities and contrasted well with the Pärt, if, at times, seeming to meander.

Emma Kirkby opened her first session with a reading from The Merchant of Venice that espoused the virtues of stillness. The first song by John Dowland, a perfectly formed miniature, received delicate and loving treatment. The lute solo followed without a break as almost an instrumental coda. The final piece by Robert Jones was more uplifting if a suitable companion.

Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine (2004) makes extensive use of medieval styles with self-imposed silences. The technique for which he has become known – tintinnabuli (from the Latin for little bells) is used to unfold the melody as it is passed note by note between the vocalists.

Kirkby and Lindberg’s second set once again drew upon music from seventeenth-century Henrys: Lawes and Purcell. Lawes’s brother William, composer of colourful instrumental pieces, is perhaps better known than his brother who spent much of his time writing for the theatre and for voice. However, Henry was the more important of the two. The ‘echo’ of the title refers to god who “answers in the echoes”. Purcell’s O Solitude is more familiar though none-the-less engaging for it. Kirkby’s performance brought out the best of these perfectly formed miniatures.

To conclude, two further works by Arvo Pärt – Fratres for string quartet and Littlemore Tractus for mixed choir and organ. Several versions of Fratres exist for a wide variety of instrumentations. The first violinist, Peter Nall, stood up throughout. Sadly the technical challenges at the start were not met and the opening arpeggios sounded scrappy and the tricky chords about two-thirds of the way through suffered from some intonation problems while the lower parts were lifeless. However, the ending with its plethora of harmonics was effective and well-executed.

Littlemore Tractus combined both the choirs to produce the loudest sounds of the evening. The text is taken from a sermon preached by John Henry Newman in Littlemore, Oxford, in 1843. The Reverend Bernhard Schünemann, Vicar of Littlemore, commissioned it to commemorate the 200th-anniversary of Newman’s birth on the 21 February 2001. It was first performed on that day by the Choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields in the Church of St Nicholas, Oxford, and made a satisfying ending to an enjoyable evening.

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