Monday 18 November 2019

From complex Renaissance harmonies to contemporary improvisation, O/Modernt's exploration of Labyrinths in Wimbledon culminated in a terrific account of Strauss' Metamorphosen

Hugo Ticciati & O/Modernt
Hugo Ticciati & O/Modernt at the O/Modernt Festival in Sweden
Labyrinths; Hugo Ticciati, O/Modernt, Sonoro Consort; Wimbledon International Music Festival at St John's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A fascinating sequence of musical labyrinths, old and new, culminating in a gut-wrenching account of Strauss' Metamorphosen

Hugo Ticciati is the artist in residence at this year's Wimbledon International Music Festival, giving a number of performances with his O/Modernt ensemble. On Saturday 16 November 2019, there was a double bill of concerts at St John's Church, Spencer Hill, Wimbledon under the theme of Into the Labyrinth, exploring a variety of labyrinths in music. 

In the afternoon, there was Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, preceded by a performance whereby Bach's The Art of Fugue (Contrapunctus I, VI, IX & XII) metamorphosed into Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, via Ticciati's own De/Constructing Fugues. In the evening, Ticciati and O/Modernt were joined by the nine singers of the Sonoro Consort, conductor Neil Ferris, for a sequence of music which took in the plainchant Tonus Peregrinus, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from William Byrd's Second Service,  Locatelli's Harmonic Labyrinth caprice, Gesualdo's Io parto e non più dissi, Aurelio de la Vega's The Magic Labyrinth, Monteverdi's Lamento d’Arianna madrigal sequence, Claudio Ambrosini's Ciaccona in Labirinto and Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen.

Pietro Locatelli - Harmonic Labyrinth
Pietro Locatelli - Harmonic Labyrinth

I have to confess that I was not able to get to the afternoon event, though had reports of a terrific performance of the Brahms from a number of people. In the evening, we were treated to a remarkable sequence, linked together by improvisations, which played continuously (an interval after the Monteverdi) and gave us a fascinating taste for the way the idea of the labyrinth has recurred in music from Renaissance to modern times, varying from a physical description of the labyrinth itself, to a conceptual idea to the metaphysical use of complex harmonies as a labyrinth. Locatelli described his Harmonic Labyrinth caprice as ''It's easy to enter but difficult to exit!'.

It was a seductive evening, crowned by a rivetingly intense performance of the septet version of Metamorphosen which was O/Modernt at their peak. Not everything in the evening was quite at this level of detail and intensity, but the sheer variety and chutzpah of the programme was seductive, and certainly popular with the audience, many of whom had attended the afternoon session.

We opened with the Tonus Peregrinus, a chanting tone from early plainchant which is so called because when used for psalms (notably Psalm 113), the reciting tone changes from one half-verse to the next. Here was had it used for the Magnificat (sung by the men of the Sonoro consort) with an improvisation from the women, leading into Byrd's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (accompanied by an uncredited organist) which are based on the Tonus Peregrinus. The singers of Sonoro make a warmly expressive sound, using rather more vibrato than is common in such ensembles today. The results, allied to a beautiful sense of line, gave the opening of the Magnificat a smoothness which slightly belied the sense of the words, but the feeling of interior drama opened up as when we came to 'scattering the proud'. This was a performance which would have made any chapel choir justly proud, but I felt that in concert we could have had even more drama, particularly in the quieter moments.

The music continued seamlessly on from the Byrd, merging into Locatelli's brilliant caprice from Hugo Ticciati, full of ridiculous string crossings. Ticciati emphasised the harmonic basis of the music by adding a drone from Gareth Lubbe, who besides being the violist of the group specialises in overtone singing and here used this skill to create an otherworldly sense to the music, though occasionally it was Lubbe's overtones which dominated over Locatelli's decorative harmonic labyrinth.

Gesualdo's Io parto e non più dissi (from his sixth book of madrigals published in 1611), is complex and intense with the amazing harmonic shifts creating a real sense of a labyrinth that it is not possible to leave (and of course commentators like to see in Gesualdo's harmonies the sense of being trapped in remorse for his killing of his wife and lover, though the reality was probably rather different!). Sonoro's performance, perhaps, seemed a little too comfortable, the singers apparently coped effortlessly with Gesualdo's complex harmonies. For all the beauty of tone, with nine singers performing the result lacked the personal intensity and individual emotional journey of just five solo singers.

Aurelio de la Vega - The Magic Labyrinth (image courtesy Library of Congress)
Aurelio de la Vega - The Magic Labyrinth
(image courtesy Library of Congress)
From here we moved to the modern labyrinth of contemporary Cuban composer Aurelio de la Vega (born 1925). His The Magic Labyrinth is a depiction of a labyrinth, a one-page visual realisation with fragments of music which the players use alongside improvisation to create an aural equivalent. With Ticciati and Lubbe (now on viola) at the high altar and Jordi Carrasco Hjelm (double bass) at the back of the church, the audience was surrounded by the music. There was a sense, in the music, not of harmony but of fragments which happened to exist together, a shifting feeling of the labyrinth.

We returned to emotional labyrinths for the final item of the first half, Monteverdi's madrigal sequence Lamento d'Arianna based on the excerpt from his lost opera Arianna. Here I found the decision to not give the audience the words a bit limiting, I felt I needed some sort of guide to the twisting labyrinth of emotions in Monteverdi's sequence of madrigals. At first, the beautifully smooth sound of the vocal ensemble mitigated against the intense emotions of the music, but from the second section where the drama increased, emotional tensions rose though there were still moments when, as the music relaxed, the emotional tension did too. This was a finely sung account of the music, but for me it did not always have a sense of the intense, personal emotions of the piece. As with the Gesualdo, I am only sorry that the style of performance did not move me as much as it should have.

Part two opened with a complete change of style, as guitarist Alberto Mesirca played Ciaccona in Labirinto by the Italian composer Claudio Ambrosini (born 1934). From Ambrosini's 1995 Song Book for Guitar, the work is based on a chaconne/ciaccona and the music had a sense of the ancient form, overlaid with Ambrosini's more romantic contemporary harmonies. The elaborations over the ground bass became increasingly complex, intricate textures becoming increasingly more intricate.

Finally, the seven string players of O/Modernt (Hugo Ticciati, Johannes Marmen, Gareth Lubbe, Bryony Gibson-Cornish, Julian Arp, Claude Frochaux, Jordi Carrasco Hjelm) played Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen. When Strauss received the commission for a string suite from Paul Sacher, he talked about having a piece for eleven solo strings on his work desk. In the event, Strauss delivered a work for 23 solo strings, but in the 1990s Strauss' original short score came to light, and this was for seven strings. So a new septet version was created based on this. The result is intimate, and in the performance from O/Modernt, very concentrated, intense and dark. The sound lacks the lushness of the 23 voiced original, we no longer have the luxurious sound of 23 different lines to relax into. Instead, there is power and focus, and it received a wonderfully detailed performance from the players. Each individual went on the sort of personal emotional journey which made the whole positively gut-wrenching.

The concert felt very much an event of two halves, perhaps because the performance styles of the two groups were so very different. But it was held together by the sheer fascination of the thread of the labyrinth which linked all the pieces, and the intense and very individual account of the Strauss at the end was rightly the highlight of the evening.

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