The Ring Dance of the Nazarene

Canti di prigionia
Ockeghem arr. Birtwistle
Ut heremita solus
The Ring Dance of the Nazarene [BBC/VARA co-commission: UK premiere]

Roderick Williams (baritone)

Martin Allen (tombak)

BBC Singers

Stephen Cleobury

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A choral concert of contrasts for this late-night Prom, with two major works separated by a short arrangement – made just 25 years ago – by Harrison Birtwistle. Not that ‘arrangement’ is entirely appropriate with Ut heremita solus – a four-voice piece of unspecified instrumentation, probably written by the Flemish polyphonist Johannes (or Jean de) Ockeghem. Music to be contemplated – even ‘worked out’ – rather than just listened to, performed by a sextet which brings out the contrapuntal ingenuity of the original; and with glockenspiel and piano pointing up salient pitches and highlighting timbral contrast in a realisation which instructs the mind as much as it pleases the senses.

As, in their very different ways, did those works either side of it. Birtwistle’s The Ring Dance of the Nazarene (2003) is an elaboration of procedures from his chamber opera “The Last Supper”, focusing on the reciprocation of Jesus (the Nazarene) and his followers (the disciples). Essentially it concerns the former’s assertion of eternal life and the latter’s engagement in a series of ritualistic call-and-response exchanges, played out as an eight-section cantata whose inferential change calls to mind certain of Stravinsky’s late choral works. As, too, does the scoring: solo baritone assuming the roles of protagonist and narrator, and a male choir representing the disciples and, by extension, a ‘Greek chorus’ which comments on the action from both an active and passive perspective. An interesting addition is the tombak – an Iranian drum whose dry timbre cuts through the otherwise conventional ensemble, picking up on the baritone’s incitement to dance and motivating his rhythmic accents accordingly.

While the writing both for the soloist and the chorus has that astringent formality characteristic of Birtwistle’s dramatic works, the rhythmic intricacy of the latter does not always aid comprehension of the text – important in a piece whose words, as in much pre-Classical music, articulate the music in its harmonic and rhythmic essentials. David Harsent has prepared a serviceable text which draws freely on the “Apocryphal Gospel of St John” – most potently in the lengthy baritone ‘arias’ of sections five and seven, where the expressive restraint of Roderick Williams’s singing was most impressive. Martin Allen made his percussive contribution deftly but tellingly, and the input of the BBC Singers was enhanced by Endymion – notably in the obbligato role allotted to solo instruments.

Nevertheless, it was the performance of Luigi Dallapiccola’s Canti di prigionia (1941), which opened proceedings, that made the strongest impression. 2004 marks the centenary of the composer’s birth, but his music has been little in evidence here during the past two decades: a pity given the quality and sheer allure of his output in general, and the works written either side of World War Two in particular. Each movement of Canti sets a text by a figure condemned to death on account either of political expediency or moral transgression (not that the two are mutually exclusive), the Dies irae plainchant underpinning each of them to an expressively distinct though equally potent effect.

Thus the ‘Prayer of Mary Stuart’, as the queen awaits execution, is given a setting alternately grave and impassioned; the ‘Invocation of Boethius’, the Roman philosopher convicted of treason, is treated with a strange but compelling blend of the stoic and the capricious; while the ‘Farewell of Girolamo Savonarola’, condemned for religious insurrection, has an increasing urgency which vividly translates his sentiments from the late 1590s to a time much nearer our own. Throughout the work, starkly expressive choral writing is enriched by the contribution of two harps, two pianos and percussion – opening up a range of possibilities which, recalling then recent explorations by Bartók and Stravinsky, is given an inherently personal treatment.

Standing out against the resonant Albert Hall acoustic, the music made an uncompromising impression – such as was clearly conveyed to the small but enthusiastic audience. Unlikely a Dallapiccola revival has begun, but stranger things have happened.

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