Flow, my tears
Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday – Tristis est anima mea (Responsory 2)
Moro, lasso, al mio duolo
Lamento della ninfa
L’Orfeo – Act II/Messenger SceneBetty Olivero
Neharot, Neharot [UK premiere]
Lawrence Power (viola)
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: 21 August, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
This third Proms Saturday Matinee boasted something of a high-concept programme, marrying renaissance vocal works with more-recent compositions which have been inspired by them. Death stalked each of these pieces and while the thematic unity was impressive, the relentless gloom made for an exhausting listen.
The first pair united John Dowland and Benjamin Britten, with Dowland’s song “Flow, my tears” leading without a pause into Britten’s astounding orchestration of his own Lachrymae. In the Dowland, mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson of I Fagiolini dispelled an initial nervousness to produce a rich and very human performance and was accompanied by Eligio Quinteiro on the theorbo. Britten’s Lachrymae of 1950 was heard in the 1976 version for viola and strings, the return to “Flow, my tears” at the conclusion moving and intensely beautiful. Lawrence Power played with warm tone which integrated easily into the strings when necessary and projected effortlessly in the many solo passages. Throughout, Power was alert to the wildness of the score, but also to the tender pianissimo of its conclusion. The strings of the Britten Sinfonia were also excellent in the fractured lines of Britten’s orchestral adaptation.
Clare Wilkinson returned with I Fagiolini en masse for two pieces by Carlo Gesualdo. Gesualdo’s grip on the popular imagination is particularly strong because of his notorious involvement in the murder of his wife and her lover, an event referred to in the work which followed, Brett Dean’s “Carlo”. Discussing the music of Gesualdo beforehand, Robert Hollingworth commented that murder of unfaithful spouses was not particularly uncommon in the sixteenth-century. Indeed, rather than the composer’s bloody deeds, it is the singular strangeness of his music which continues to startle. In these two short works, Gesualdo stretches the boundaries of late-sixteenth-century harmony to their limits. “Tristis est anima mea” vividly sets Jesus’s exhortation to his followers that they “shall take flight” with an unexpected momentary quickening of tempo, followed by a repeated unresolved figure of enormous beauty. “Moro, lasso, almio duolo”, which sets a morbid and self pitying text by Gesualdo himself, followed but soprano Emma Tring brought too much vibrato to the more florid passages and the more extreme moments of harmonic trickery were less than ideally pitched by the ensemble in general.
Both of these pieces are woven into Brett Dean’s “Carlo” (1997), though the vocal parts are confined to tape. The strings of the Britten Sinfonia interacted with the taped elements, their part demanding a variety of fractured and frenetic effects. Tape interjections often seem to re-energise the musical material and move it on, while broken segments of Gesualdo’s music mix with unnerving whispers and clicks. At twenty minutes, “Carlo” is too long and although it is similar in tone to the Britten, the comparison does it little favour. At times it sounds little more than a compendium of effects for strings and while there are arresting moments (particularly the Ligeti-like hum at the end) it doesn’t really add anything to the Gesualdo that it digests.
The final pair featured Monteverdi and music by Israeli composer Betty Olivero. “Lamento della ninfa” is from Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals and its inherent theatricality led well into this presentation of a scene from “L’Orfeo”. The fifteen-minute ‘messenger scene’ sees a jubilant Orpheus brought news of the death of his wife Eurydice. I Fagiolini presented the scene semi-staged, which worked brilliantly. Once again, Clare Wilkinson, in the role of the messenger, stood out. Her delivery of the line (in Italian) “Your beloved bride is dead!” was remarkable for its otherworldly concentration.
Betty Olivero’s “Neharot, Neharot” (2007) reminded us of the violence of the present. The composer explained that the piece was composed while Israel was engaged in a war with forces in Lebanon, the music directly affected by the images of fighting broadcast on television. ‘Neharot’ means ‘rivers’ in Hebrew, here rivers of blood and tears, but Olivero also implies hope, taking advantage of a partial double-meaning of the Hebrew word to mean ‘ray of light’. Happily, Power returned to play the substantial viola part, again accompanied by Britten Sinfonia with additional percussion and an accordion (Ian Watson).
Olivero’s musical language is, at least in this piece, straightforwardly diatonic and incorporates the harmonic fingerprint of her Israeli upbringing. At the outset, the texture incorporates accordion and strings expertly and percussion is used delicately. The lyrical viola line prefigures the brief appearance of taped voices mourning the dead, though the amplified vocal material detracts from the carefully wrought flow of the orchestral writing. Olivero thankfully avoids recreating a musical sense of violence and instead attempts an emotive reaction to it. It is a rare but encouraging reminder that contemporary music can tackle the modern world and its cruel injustices successfully.