Monday 2 April 2018

Atmosphere at the expense of text: Wednesday at St John's Holy Week Festival

St John's Smith Square (Photo Matthew Andrews)
St John's Smith Square
(Photo Matthew Andrews)
The Gesualdo Six, Tenebrae, Nigel Short; Holy Week Festival at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Mar 30 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Intimate music for vocal ensemble, and Arvo Pärt's passion re-telling in atmospheric performances, though text rather got lost

St John’s Smith Square was in the midst of its the Holy Week Festival, the week-long collaboration by Tenebrae and St John’s curated by Nigel Short. It includes late-night liturgical events and community concerts, culminating with the Bach B minor Mass on Easter Day. I went to two concerts on Wednesday (30 March 2018); they complemented each other very well, an early evening performance of 16th, 20th and 21st music from The Gesualdo Six, and then Arvo Pärt's Passio from Nigel Short and Tenebrae.

Instead of facing north and looking at the changing light outside or the huge red curtain inside, we were facing the wood underneath the organ, lit to exaggerate the dark corners. Visually, it provides a perfect atmosphere for Holy Week, especially as it gets later in the evening (and assuming everyone has read and absorbed the material in the printed programme beforehand). When it comes to the acoustics, however, it creates a muddiness that makes it very difficult to follow text, and it swallows up lighter voices. Instruments seem to fare better, but given the Holy Week story is so eventful it seems a shame that text lost out to atmosphere.

I should say here that, as a linguist by trade and opera surtitler, I am of the opinion that, if a piece of music has words, they should be understood by the audience – if they want them. I realise I don’t speak for everybody, and for many the music speaks for itself. I should also say that I know the singers were giving their all in terms of articulation. It was the fact that the consonants got swallowed up in the dark corners underneath the organ.

Fading: the hour is at hand

Tallis Te lucis ante terminum
Tormis Lase kiik käia! (Let the Cradle Swing!)
Gibbons O Lord, in thy wrath
Owain Park Phos hilaron
Joanna Marsh Two movements from Arabesques: (i) Fading, (ii) Seeds in Flight
Tormis Laulan lapsele (I Sing for My Child)
Gesualdo Illumina faciem tuam
Arvo Pärt Morning Star
Tormis Marjal aega magada (It’s Time for the Little Berry to Sleep)
Byrd Lullaby my sweet little babe
Marenzio Potrò viver io più se senza luce

The early concert was given by the Gesualdo Six: two each of countertenors, tenors and basses. Their 45-minute programme consisted of pieces from the sixteenth and late 20th/21st centuries, from Tallis to Joanna Marsh and the group’s Director, British-born bass Owain Park, via Italy and Estonia. The group have recently released a CD on Hyperion and, whether they are still singing for the microphones, or whether the back-to-front set-up at St John’s deprived them of any reverb, it felt they were singing for the benefit of the front two rows only. Intimate, certainly, but the lighting alone didn’t do the whole job of creating an opportunity for us to meditate on the text.

The Gesualdo Six produce a perfectly blended and soft-grained sound, overall quite a cool sound in the context of Passion Week. They were singing of despair and loss in the Renaissance pieces and, in the more recent lullabies, of peace and hope. They seemed to enjoy the contemporary pieces more, particularly the Joanna Marsh and Owain Park, and the three Tormis songs (plus encore) which were the most energetic of the programme. I would have liked more desperation in the Renaissance pieces, to match the harmonies of the Gesualdo and Marenzio particularly, and to remind us that for Byrd and his Catholic compatriots, this was music making as if their lives depended on it.

Pärt Passio

Nicholas Madden PILATE/TENOR
Jimmy Holliday JESUS/BASS
Emilia Morton SOPRANO
David de Winter TENOR
Stephen Kennedy BARITONE

Arvo Pärt Passio

The second part of the evening featured Pärt’s 1982 setting of the St John Passion. It uses chapters 18 and 19 from St John’s gospel in Latin and is scored for tenor (Pilate) and bass (Christus) with SATB quartet and a choir – here 18 singers, accompanied by violin, cello, oboe and bassoon and organ. The back-to-front setup and the candlelight certainly gave us atmosphere. However, again, this was at the expense of text. Personally, I don’t mind how many times I hear a story (on the concert platform or operatic stage at least) – I always like to find new things in the text, and especially the subtleties between one language and another. And I don’t mind being immersed in a bath of sound, when I am not being told a story. But from where I was sitting, halfway down the hall, it was all a bit murky. The poor chorister who fainted in the middle of it spoke for me. I was feeling a bit light-headed too.

Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ technique was in its early stages when the piece was written, and it is very much in evidence. It is pared down and austere, with much repetition. The programme notes talked about the ‘static’ quality of the piece as a ‘panacea to the sense of dynamism, drama and progress associated with secular modernity’. The oboe has a mysterious, simple motif and the St John’s organ was put to good use in the bigger choral sections. The Evangelist’s narrative is sung by the SATB quartet; Pilate was a tenor, Nicholas Madden and Christus was the bass Jimmy Holliday, standing either side of the stage and so more present vocally. If we don’t want to hear the Good Friday story unfold – or if we just want to sit and think – it is a moving 70 minutes. It is not a piece I knew well, but to be able to judge it properly I would want to hear it at St John’s the right way round.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

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