A Relic of Memory

A Relic of Memory [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
The Bells, Op.35

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Tatiana Monogarova (soprano)
Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor)
Sergei Leiferkus (baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir
Philharmonia Chorus

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 23 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For a composer who has written as much music as Mark-Anthony Turnage, choral works have been noticeably scarce in his catalogue; indeed what little there was prior to “A Relic of Memory” of 2003 has largely been withdrawn. Thus this setting of lines from Sonnet 71 of Shakespeare fused with extracts from the Requiem Mass stands as his major statement in the choral field to date.

The work was written for the Berlin Philharmonic and Rundfunkchor Berlin and premiered under Sir Simon Rattle in October 2004. It received its UK premiere at this colourful and exceptionally well-attended Prom given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (of which Turnage is currently Composer in Residence) under its Principal Guest Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who steps up to the role of Principal Conductor at the beginning of the 2007-8 season.

At the pre-concert talk, Turnage confessed that choral writing did not come easily to him and that he had a fear of sounding like a product of the English choral tradition. Thus setting, at least in part, a Latin text steered him away from any unintended association with that school and in Turnage’s case produced a choral style much closer to the Russian tradition and very specifically to the choral works of Stravinsky (the setting of the line ‘Dona nobis pacem’ at the end is near-identical to that in Stravinsky’s “Mass”). Likewise the ritualistic tolling of hand-bells throughout the work, reaching its apotheosis in the final passage (a wholesale lift of his a cappella “Calmo” completed in 2003) brought to mind the perorations of “Les noces” and “Requiem canticles”.

The arresting opening chord (a Turnage speciality!) not only contained bells in its orchestration but also, like much of the harmonic material of the piece, is voice-spaced in a manner suggestive of bell overtone phenomena. This issues into a florid, luminous orchestral passage characteristic of the orchestral writing throughout the work. In this respect “A Relic of Memory” is typical of its composer in its seamless mix of tactile, gestural invention with blurry elements that smear the overall sonic picture.

Less successful is the choral writing. Although never-less than the work of a ‘pro’, whether in the voicing of the chorale-like passages or the dense polyphony of the central ‘Lacrimosa’ panel (Tippett came to mind here), the demands of part-writing and word-setting seemed to inhibit Turnage’s musical instincts and the result was somewhat bloodless.

Nevertheless this is a fine work which vividly sustained its mood of mourning and loss, and in its bleakness seemed to conjure up not just the Styx but also the pylons, Pentecostal churches and pudding mudflats of Turnage’s native Thames Estuary.

The chorus for this performance was a joint outing for the London Philharmonic Choir and the Philharmonia Chorus and the singers acquitted themselves well in the challenging writing originally intended for a professional choir, Germany’s equivalent of the BBC Singers. There were some blurred entries not I think intended by the composer but there was much else that was perfectly achieved. Jurowski drew committed playing from the LPO, alternately punchy and refined. The melodic material of the work is largely drawn from the opening double-chorus of “Bach’s St Matthew Passion”, which Turnage declared in the talk to be probably his “favourite piece of music, full stop”. Having once heard Turnage say that one of his two life ambitions was to score a soundtrack for a Scorsese film, it struck me that he may have partially achieved this – that chorus bookends the soundtrack of “Casino”. (The other ambition is to collaborate with Prince. Hopefully that may yet happen!)

The choirs certainly had their work cut out for them in this Prom. The second half featured a relatively rare performance of Rachmaninov’s “The Bells”, thus continuing the theme of Russian campanology. Edgar Allan Poe’s texts, set in feverish Russian translations by the Symbolist poet Balmont, focus on the varied social functions of the bell. In the four movements respectively, sleigh bells, wedding bells, ‘loud alarum bells’ and funeral bells. (I was reminded of the bell inscription set in Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango – “I mourn the dead, mark the passing of time and call the faithful to prayer.”)

This was unquestionably a performance directed from the heart by Jurowski. The opening number immediately threw us into a crisp winter landscape, the orchestral contribution enchantingly light and gossamer and with an opulent, full sound from the chorus. The second setting, a radiant hymn to love, was rapturously delivered by Tatiana Monogarova who effortlessly rode aloft the weft of Rachmaninov’s Technicolor orchestration, here wonderfully realised.

I thought David Nice’s programme note entirely correct in detecting a retroactive hint of John Adams in the orchestral introduction to the vivid third tableaux. The plunging chromatics of the orchestral writing was rendered magnificently, the chorus lusty and thrilling. But it was the final setting ‘Mournful Iron Bells’ that really hit home. The woodwinds had an authentically sour Russian timbre and the outstanding baritone Sergei Leiferkus had that nasal, burnished delivery that seemingly only Russian singers can produce. The first entry of the chorus was a great cry of grief and the massed singers surpassed themselves here. The orchestral coda was deeply moving and vouchsafed a few seconds of that Proms rarity, total silence.

Less of that in the earlier performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, where just before the cadenza in the finale a mobile phone merrily added a syncopated rhythmic counterpoint to the orchestra’s flourishes. Nikolai Lugansky’s effortless virtuosity and hammer precision were exactly what is needed in this most fiendish of concertos but subtlety was also in supply where needed, as when the piano’s first entry was floated beautifully over a bed of utmost refinement in the orchestra. The scherzo found soloist and orchestra meshed together in perfect synchronisation. Prokofiev’s eccentric form and content throughout – always within the realm of the familiar but never quite doing the expected – on this occasion made perfect sense. The whole evening was a great showcase for Russian musical prowess. And Essex.

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