Saturday 21 December 2019

Prayer of the Heart: the Brodsky Quartet & the Gesualdo Six in a sequence of music from Tavener to Panufnik (father and daughter)

Gesualdo Six (Photo Ash Mills)
Gesualdo Six (Photo Ash Mills)
Prayer of the Heart - Tavener, Morales, Esenvalds, Hildegard von Bingen, Rimkus, Kraggerud, Gesualdo, Roxanna Panufnik, Andrzej Panufnik; THe Brodsky Quartet, Gesualdo Six; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Marking the end of Venus Unwrapped this sequence of music for voices and strings proved a powerfully concentrated and sophisticated evening.

It made a rather lovely change that the final concert in Kings Place's Venus Unwrapped series, which took place on Friday 20 December 2019, had nothing to do with Christmas. Instead, we had a sequence of music from the Gesualdo Six (Owain Park, Guy James, Andrew Leslie Cooper, Joseph Wicks, Josh Cooter, Michael Craddock, Samuel Mitchell) and the Brodsky Quartet (Gina McCormack, Ian Belton, Paul Cassidy, Jacqueline Thomas) which played without an interval and took us from John Tavener, through Cristobal de Morales arranged by Eriks Esenvalds, Hildegard von Bingen, Owain Park, Sarah Rimkus, Henning Kraggerud and Andrzej Panufnik, with the music of Roxanna Panufnik at its centre including her Dante setting, This paradise.

The Brodsky Quartet (photo Sarah Cresswell)
The Brodsky Quartet (photo Sarah Cresswell)
The pieces flowed continuously, with no applause between, and lighting was low-ish and atmospheric. The quartet was on stage at all times but the singers came and went, starting in the balcony, and for some later items standing with the instrumentalists including, rather memorably, interleaving themselves amongst the players. The sheer logistics of the evening were impressive, as the music flowed naturally, people moved yet you were never aware of a hiatus or a need to shuffle. All beautifully done.

My main gripe was in the low lighting level, which rendered the printed words unreadable so we were left to simply listen with our ears. This worked for many of the pieces, but for Roxanna Panufnik's large-scale Dante setting this was a problem. Roxanna had provided a lucid printed explanation of the piece, which of course we could not follow and none of the singers' words were very comprehensible, and I felt I could have appreciated the work more if I had been able to follow the programme notes.

We started with John Tavener, his Prayer of the Heart where the Brodsky Quartet provided quiet sustained chords over a recorded heart-beat, as individual members of the Gesualdo Six, placed half out of sight in the balcony, intoned a sequence of quasi chant-like passages. This is one of those pieces which rather divides people, on the one hand Tavener creates something profoundly contemplative and rather magical from quite simple materials, yet his very willingness to repeat meant that the work felt longer than it needed to be with the musical material over stretched.

But Tavener would have argued that that was not the point, his own programme note says 'Then you are singing no longer with your own emotion or your own intellect, but with the eye of the heart in the intellective organ of the heart. This can save millions of souls, and change the world.'

Eriks Esenvalds version of Christobal de Morales' Parce mihi Domine kept the mood, as four singers sang Morales' motet whilst the strings provided interruptive chords in a totally different key, the result was to evoke the atmosphere created by the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek in Officium. A pair of works by Roxanna Panufnik followed. Votive, for string quartet, was a short work building from an impassioned cello solo over intense chords into something profoundly intense indeed. O Hearken, another short work this time vocal, was similarly intense with a lovely use of close harmonies.

Hildegard of Bingen's O Ecclesia used a solo tenor over sustained strings, to fine effect, and led effortlessly into Owain Park's lovely Phos hilarion, again with a solo counter-tenor singing chant-like music over sustained humming.

Roxanna Panufnik's This paradise is inspired by and sets text from Canto 23 of Dante's Paradiso. The work was commissioned by the Dante Quartet, and the male voice choir part is optional. We started with sustained strings and humming, with just occasional flurries of busy-ness. The music developed in intensity and there was a strong rhapsodic feel to the writing, and a sense of the pastoral. Throughout, what really struck was Roxanna's use of texture, the sustained sound of the singers contrasted with the sheer textures of the strings, creating some magical moments, full of contrast and interest. The singers operated independently of the strings, the two co-equal rather than one accompanying the other. Reflecting on the piece afterwards, I wondered perhaps whether what was needed to complete the performance wasn't the words but a visual evocation of the story, the sort of film like Jeremy Hamway-Bidgood's new film to accompany RVW's On Wenlock Edge which we saw at the Oxford Lieder Festival earlier this year.

This was followed by American composer Sarah Rimkus' My heart is like a singing bird, an a cappella vocal work which used close harmonies to striking effect, creating its own sound world. This was followed by Henning Kraggerud's Preghiera, an intense and aetherial work for strings, which was incredibly evocative. Kraggerud is a violinist and composer who is artistic director of the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra, and he wrote the piece in 2011-12 for the Brodsky Quartet. Another prayer followed, this time a Polish one with Modlitwa, Roxanna Panufnik's completion of a setting of a poem made by her father, which was left unfinished at his death. Here we had voices and strings, with a lovely melody developing into something dark and intense. Roxanna's O Tu Andrzej followed, again with singers and strings, where a string introduction by Roxanna reflects both Gesualdo's O vos omnes but also her father's First string quartet, and this led to the Gesualdo motet performed by both singers and strings.

The sequence finished with more Tavener, his setting of The Lord's Prayer originally written for The Tallis Scholars, a simple yet effective piece which was almost syllabic in its setting, with the strings following the voices.

This 80 minute programme created a remarkably focused and sophisticated sequence which seemed to grow out of the sound of Tavener's lines of chant over sustained chords, and ultimately returned to it. The choice of music flowed beautifully, with some surprising confluences and interesting influences and combinations, such as the way the Morales flowed out of the Tavener and led to Esenvalds. But I must confess that I wanted an element of grit or toughness, the sheer focus on contemplative intensity was a bit much and perhaps too self-regarding, for me there needed to be something disruptive as well.

That said, the performances were superb. The contrast between the groups was noticeable, the quartet formed in 1972 (and still with two of the original members), the vocal ensemble in 2014 (with a director who was born when the quartet had reached its 21st birthday), yet the two groups complemented, supported and partnered each other wonderfully. Technically the performances was impressive, much of this music depended on a precision of pitch and rhythm, something all concerned seemed to do effortlessly so that we appreciated the music's simplicity and elegance.

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