Friday 2 April 2021

A Life On-Line: Bach, Haydn, MacMillan and Victoria for Holy Week, with Britten too

The Octagon Tower, Ely Cathedral (photo Mark Seton,
The Octagon Tower, Ely Cathedral (photo Mark Seton)

Holy Week has always been a busy time for singers and musicians, and it seems that without live performances many ensembles are finding ways to continue that. So our on-line experiences this week ranged from Bach and Haydn to James MacMillan, with some Britten and Victoria as well, coming from St John's Smith Square, Ely Cathedral, Wigmore Hall and Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ in Amsterdam.

Our week began with Bach, though not quite the works you would expect for Holy Week. On Monday, as part of St John's Smith Square's Holy Week Festival, violinist Lana Trotovšek performed Bach's great Partita No. 2 in D minor which concludes with the 'Chaconne'. The performance reflected the current thinking that the work is a tombeau for Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who had died unexpectedly while Bach was away in Karlsbad, and that the 'Chaconne' is based on a number of funeral melodies from the Lutheran church. For the performance Trotovšek was joined by four of Tenebrae's Young Artists, Victoria Meteyard, Hannah King, Toby Ward, Joseph Edwards and movements from the Partita were interleaved with chorales, and then during the final 'Chaconne' the singers performed the chorales on which the movement was based whilst the violinist was playing the 'Chaconne'. 

This is not a new idea, and it represents a type of performance which Bach would never have considered, partly because during Bach's day the chorale melodies would have been so well known that an alert listener would probably have detected them. Yet it remains a fascinating excercise, bringing out that which is hidden. Trotovšek gave a richly textured performance of the Partita, the faster movements often vivid and slower ones like the 'Sarabande' full of melancholy and elegant rich tone. The performance flowed, though only occasionally did Trotovšek bring out the underlying dance rhythms. In the 'Chaconne' I was impressed with the performance on a number of levels, Trotovšek's strong, passionate performance, the skill of the singers in being able to follow and shadow her when singing the chorales, and the way Trotovšek held focus even when the mind was tempted by the chorale melodies being sung. [SJSS]

On Tuesday, St John's Smith Square provided us with more instrumental meditation, this time in the form of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross, Hob.XX:2 in the version for string quartet played by the period instrument ensemble The Revolutionary Drawing Room (Adrian Butterfield, Dominika Fehér, Rachel Stott, Ruth Alford). It is a tricky work to perform, essentially a sequence of richly imaginative yet contemplative slow movements (seven sonatas plus 'Introduzione' and the final 'Il Terremoto') which were designed to be alternated with sermons. The original was for orchestra, and this string quartet version represents a very profound distillation. For this performance, there were seven short meditations from the Dean of Westminster, The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle. Revd Hoyle managed to get the balance just right both in terms of length and content, neither talking down nor going over the heads of the listener, always engaging yet dealing head-on with the difficulties and the concepts behind the seven last words. These spoken elements formed an ideal contrast with The Revolutionary Drawing Room's intense and highly textured account of this music. These were performances where we learned all the ways that historically informed performance can alter our perceptions of music. This was one of those events were I profoundly missed actually being there. [SJSS]

The seven last words reappeared on Wednesday (often referred to as Spy Wednesday) in a service live-streamed from Ely Cathedral in the form of James MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross, a terrific work which was premiered in 1994 by Cappella Nova and the BTScottish Ensemble directed by Alan Tavener, in seven separate episodes transmitted on BBC Television (has this format of the work ever been returned to, I wonder?). Here it was performed by The Facade Ensemble, director Benedict Collins Rice, an ensemble of young singers and instrumentalists originally formed from Cambridge graduates. MacMillan extends the text with additional biblical and liturgical sentences, and manages to make the work be both a meditation and a recounting of the drama. It is a challenging piece and received a stunning performance here, with MacMillan's wrenching harmonies really cutting through with a clean edge, yet poignant moments too. The performance was one to a part (challenging in itself) which brought a lovely clarity and cleanliness to the music, yet in the more dramatic moments seemed to heighten the intensity. The result makes a very modern contemplation for Holy Week, you cannot but doubt MacMillan's spiritual commitment to the music, yet he writes in a way which speaks to a wide variety of souls. [Ely Cathedral]

This week my interview with Austrian tenor Ilker Arcayürek comes out on Saturday. On 25 March, Ilker Arcayürek joined the Amsterdam Sinfonietta (directed from the violin by Candida Thompson), Georgy Kovalev (viola) and Felix Klieser (horn) for a lovely concert from Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ in Amsterdam. My interest was, of course, Arcayürek's performance of Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (his first performance of the work and a rare excursion into English), but I stayed for the rest of what was a strong concert with Britten's Lachrymae and Shostakovich's String quartet no. 4. Britten's Serenade is a work which seems to fit Arcayürek's lyric tenor well, and there was certainly no doubt about his expressiveness (and comprehensibility) in English and I do hope that we get to hear him live in the work some time. A word also for the sympathetic and sensitive horn playing from Felix Klieser, who happens to have been born without arms yet has not let that prevent him developing into a superb horn player [YouTube]

For Maundy Thursday we were at Wigmore Hall, where Stile Antico performed Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories, giving us all eighteen motets rather than a selection. Victoria wrote them during his time in Rome and Victoria set the responsories from the services for Maunday Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, six from each day. In the original services each responsory would follow a reading, the whose creating both a narrative of the Holy Week events and a meditation on them. For these performances Stile Antico insterspersed the motets with the plainchant of the Lenten prose. The result was a substantial programme, and an affecting one, though part of me wanted the original format with readings and motets alternating! Without the liturgical drama (and there is a lot in these services) we concentrated on the precision and style of the singers. [Wigmore Hall]

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