Ithaca … Hymn to Cybele … Dum transisset

All the Ends of the Earth
Ithaca [BBC commission: world premiere]
Hymn to Cebele
Dum transisset I-IV [London premiere]
Dum transisset
Dum transisset sabbatum
Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas – In nomine Domini (Benedictus)
In nomine Domini [BBC commission: world premiere]

BBC Singers
Arditti Quartet [Irvine Arditti & Ashot Sarkissjan (violins), Ralf Ehlers (viola) & Lucas Fels (cello)]
David Hill

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 4 September, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

David HillThe final Proms Saturday Matinee of the season brought together six living composers, five of whom were present and who indeed were themselves just five of at least twenty composers in the audience – if Cadogan Hall had been swallowed so would a good deal of the UK’s compositional talent. Thankfully this didn’t happen and the capacity audience was rewarded with an intriguing and well-thought out programme of choral and instrumental music whose inspiration and composition spanned some 700 years.

Listening to Judith Weir’s music is like a breath of fresh air – bracing, uncluttered textures, an incisive rhythmic energy and not a wasted note – her contribution to the BBC’s Sounding the Millennium series – “All the Ends of the Earth” – certainly has all these qualities. The composer takes fragments of an organum by the 13th-century master Perotin and develops freely composed and increasingly elaborate vocal lines over Perotin’s original intoned by the tenors and basses. Weir’s accompanying ensemble of harp and three percussionists is used sparingly but with magical and telling effect.

Thea Musgrave. Photograph: Christian SteinerIt was good to see Thea Musgrave acknowledge the applause for “Ithaca” – she is now a remarkably sprightly 82 years old, one of our finest composers of the senior generation, who now, after a long period of neglect, seems to be getting at least some (but not yet enough) of the attention she deserves. “Ithaca” celebrates the homecoming of Odysseus, in a translation of a text by the Greek poet Cavafy, which the composer likens to the journey of life that we all take, with all the trials and tribulations that we encounter on the way. The music is as one might expect, expertly laid-out for eight-part choir, but on the whole did not seem to do a great deal in its 10-minute duration – a contrasting middle section would have perhaps created a more immediately favourable impression.

We stayed in classical Greece for the next work, which showed the BBC Singers at their most astoundingly virtuosic. Bayan Northcott’s dramatic “Hymn to Cebele” is nothing short of a tour de force for choir, but more particularly for soloists from the choir of whom Christopher Bowen and in particular Edward Price bordered on the heroic! The text (translated from Catullus by Northcott) was the most blood-thirsty of the afternoon – I can’t imagine the word “emasculate” has come up much in Catherine Bott’s introductions! This is the sort of music that the BBC Singers revel in, but it is a pity the sheer technical difficulty of this fine piece rules out performances by all but the very best choirs.

The three pieces in the middle of the programme were all built around different responses to the text “Dum transisset sabbatum” (And when the Sabbath was passed). Brian Ferneyhough’s response is a four-movement string quartet based on viol pieces by the Renaissance composer Christopher Tye. Very little, if anything of that soundworld is evident in Ferneyhough’s piece(s), finely played by the foremost interpreters of this composer but listening to Ferneyhough’s music only brings to mind a paraphrase of an alleged Beecham quote: “I admire the music but don’t like the noise it makes”. Of the four movements, only the ghostly, stuttering third movement made any sense at all. Two small ensembles from the choir then sang a slightly wobbly account of John Taverner’s setting of the text and a more confident, early setting by Jonathan Harvey.

The afternoon’s final work also took its inspiration from Taverner (1490-1545) and in particular ‘In nomine Domine’, a section from the “Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas” that has inspired so many composers. Gabriel Jackson’s brief for his BBC commission set the composer something of a challenge – a work for chorus, string quartet, harp and percussion, bringing all the ensembles from the afternoon together. Only towards the end of the work does the composer do this, until then light touches on harp and percussion accompany the voices, whilst the string quartet interludes meditate on Taverner’s original. The choral-writing as always with Jackson is not just assured, but overwhelmingly confident, ecstatic, full of bite and fire and almost dangerously beautiful, the instruments adding to his palette of already extensive colours. Again soloists were taken from within the choir, of which Olivia Robinson and Emma Tring’s ringing, agile soprano lines were particularly memorable. David Hill’s direction of the whole programme can be summed in one word – illuminating!

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