Cantus arcticus … The Whale

Cantus arcticus
Cantus mysticus [UK premiere]
The Whale

Patricia Rozario (soprano) & Mark van de Wiel (clarinet) [Cantus mysticus]

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone), Brian Perkins (narrator), Kathy Clugston, Sarah Montague, Alison Rooper, Vaughan Savidge, Zeb Soanes & Edward Stourton (speakers) and London Sinfonietta Chorus [The Whale]

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 27 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Atherton. Photograph: Ken JacquesAs a celebration of its 40th-anniversary year the London Sinfonietta revisited its very first concert, which included the world premiere of John Tavener’s “The Whale”, conducted by David Atherton.

Atherton was at the helm again for the work’s third performance at the Proms. Tavener’s music and varying methods of communicating text still make a tremendous impact, and with an unfortunate Prommer fainting towards the end, the drama was magnified still further. Whilst very much of their time, the vocal gestures nonetheless remain powerful, with none more so than David Wilson-Johnson’s bellow into the open piano, as he took on the role of Jonah. With other performance ‘enhancements’ including page-rustling from the chorus, coruscating percussion and bellowing brass, each pictorial reference made up the whole rather than standing there for its own sake, all given stunning definition.

Brian PerkinsThe soothing tones of the narrator, BBC Radio 4 newsreader Brian Perkins (originally it was Alvar Liddell), were ideal for the delivery of the Collins Encyclopaedia definition of a whale, while six other voices from the same station were positioned around the Royal Albert Hall to make brief yet striking loudhailer contributions as the madness of the ‘Melodrama’ and ‘Pantomime’ took hold.

As Jonah’s story was played out and incisively delivered by the vocalists, so the percussion and keyboard instruments gathered a mighty strength – while in the quieter moments the tone secured from Shelagh Sutherland’s Hammond organ was most disconcerting. Tavener himself played the instrument at the premiere, and sitting nearby was the other constant from that night, pianist John Constable.

As the work reached its rather bilious conclusion Atherton kept a firm hand on the tiller, pausing only when the sound completely withdrew to disembodied chords from the choir. The pioneering recording of “The Whale”, made by the same forces, was released on The Beatles’ Apple label – yet as David Gutman’s ever-informative Listening Notes pointed out, it is not currently available. This is most regrettable, given its prominence in the concert and the Sinfonietta’s anniversary year.

Patricia RozarioThis prom also included the first UK performance of the rather strange “Cantus mysticus”, with the Tavener’s regular collaborator Patricia Rozario alongside clarinettist Mark van de Wiel. The soloists’ roles became fully apparent as the contemplation unfolded, Tavener once again focussing on religions other than Orthodox Christianity. Rozario soared to her high notes beautifully early on, but disruptive influences were forthcoming in the jazzy improvisations from the clarinet, bringing to mind Leonard Bernstein as they pitched a battle against the thoughtful calm of the strings. Rozario soon succumbed to this pattern with hiccoughing gestures, the work’s flow and formal design upset. The final chord of rest on which the strings found themselves was thus a rather clipped resolution, the music left high and dry as a result, despite a fine performance.

Height was an important feature of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus arcticus, essentially a ‘concerto for birds and orchestra’. The taped sounds of migrating flocks on the wing came from the height of the Hall’s speaker system, and so had the correct sound elevation, as if in flight. The modal response to these from the strings brought to mind briefly Vaughan Williams, then perhaps inevitably Sibelius. For the most part of first movement ‘In The Marsh’, the sound was given a glinting top edge courtesy of John Constable’s celesta, while in the ‘Swans Migrating’ third section the thickly mottled sound of the birds was nicely balanced by more urgent flute and clarinet calls.

This turned out to be an ideal late-night piece, a clear precursor of the entirely synthesised work of Jean Michel Jarre and comfortably ahead of its time. Rautavaara is 80 this year – like the Sinfonietta, he celebrates his anniversary in rude health.

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