Prom 36 – Orpheus: Death / Behind the Wire

Lux aeterna
Motets – Christus factus est; Virga Jesse floruit; Ave Maria
Nenia: The Death of Orpheus *
… a riveder le stelle
Orpheus Behind the Wire

Swedish Radio Choir
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
Stefan Parkman

Claron McFadden (soprano)
Nash Ensemble
Lionel Friend *

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 14 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Eric Ericson was associated with both choirs singing in the Royal Albert Hall tonight, putting modern choral works firmly in the Swedish repertoire. The two choirs – each with 33 singers – sang unaccompanied under the Swedish Radio Choir’s chief conductor, Stefan Parkman.

Ligeti’s ears are two of the sharpest in the business. However difficult his writing may be, he knows exactly what sounds he wants. For the most part, Lux aeterna is a canon in which the voices enter unemphatically – modelled, says Richard Toop, Ligeti’s biographer, on Ockeghem’s “intimate canons”. We hear and re-hear the melody – in the same key, from different voices, at different speeds. The result is a continuing susurration – an ingenious continuity and a softly shimmering eternity – struck three times by a beam of rasping, blazing light. Words disappeared – no matter. Instead, voices become divine instruments (aided, here, by the rather metallic resonance of the RAH). It was awe-inspiring to hear heavenly nature this close and intimate.

The three Bruckner motets were a gentle delight. ’Christus est’ and ’Virga Jesse’ are relatively late pieces, written more than a decade after Bruckner gave six recitals on the new Albert Hall organ in 1871. The singing was soft, romantic and diaphanous – acknowledging the composer’s adventurousness (however self-effacing) in key-changes, harmonies and dynamics in sublime disregard of the austere contemporary ’Cecilian’ practice.

In Sweden, Ingvar Lidholm (born 1921) is a respected composer, connected to both Ericson and Ligeti. The text of … a riveder le stelle is the closing lines from Dante’s Inferno. Taut, stolidly nervy, intricate music makes use of vocal blocks, counterpoint and individual voice ranges etc – but does not match the text particularly aptly. The choirs’ singing style became sturdy. Close to the end, Monika Mannerström gave us a powerful, sensuous soprano solo, aided by very welcome freer composing.

Hans Werner Henze’s Orpheus Behind the Wire was earthy, wooden and block-like. Its rather timid and anxious modernism sat uneasily on a safe, dull base of traditional writing. Conny Thimander’s tenor solo was in reedy, piping contrast to Mannerström’s vibrancy earlier.

Between Bruckner and Lidholm, Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s The Death of Orpheus for soprano solo, three bass clarinets, two doctored pianos (one dampened, one for plucking) and pitched antique cymbals, crotales. Here, like Ligeti, is a composer precisely certain of the sounds he wants made. Claron McFadden narrated, sang, and sang-spoke beguilingly and effectively to a prevailing backing of some very strange but intriguing noises. Did all this express Orpheus’s Death?

Yes, I realised, it did. The music removed itself from the human emotions I had been expecting, becoming, instead, remote, classical and timeless.

Ligeti brought eternity to nestle in my ear. Bruckner contributed a rosary (or was it a garland?). Birtwistle surveyed Orpheus from Olympus!

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