Sunday 31 March 2024

To boldly go: Daniel Pioro and the Marian Consort in music for violin and voices by Tom Coult, Nick Martin and Bach

Daniel Pioro
Daniel Pioro

Tom Coult, Daniel Pioro, Nick Martin, Bach; Daniel Pioro, the Marian Consort; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 28 March 2024 (Maundy Thursday)

A wonderfully thought-provoking evening of music for violin and voices from three contemporary works to a speculative version of Bach's great Chaconne

Under the title, Divine Revolutions: Revolving around God: Circular music and the Divine, violinist Daniel Pioro's recital at Wigmore Hall on Thursday 28 March 2024 was something a little bit different. Daniel Pioro's violin was a joined by the voices of The Marian Consort (artistic director Rory McCleery) for a programme exploring music for violin and vocal ensemble. The climax of the programme was Bach's Partita no. 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV1004 with the 'Chaconne' including accompanying chorales based on the work of musicologist Helga Thoene. The first half featured three contemporary works, the premieres of Tom Coult's O ecclesia oculi tui (after Hildegard of Bingen) and Daniel Pioro's O virtus Sapientie (after Hildegard of Bingen), plus the UK premiere of Nick Martin's Growth Rings.

Tom Coult's piece took Hildegard of Bingen's vocal line and placed it on the violin, accompanying this with contemporary drones on the choir. Pioro's solo violin was very haunting and his phrasing of Hildegard's supple lines came over as remarkably Celtic in feel, as if the sibyl of the Rhine had been holidaying on Lewis. 

We moved from unaccompanied violin to discreet drone, the layers building up until the full vocal ensemble was involved and harmonies dissolved into something opaque. The violin's playing got more rhapsodic as Coult took Hildegard of Bingen's vocal line more into his own territory, and the harmonies intensified and we reached a climax where the vocal contribution came to the fore, placing Pioro's violin in the background, but then this receded again until Pioro was alone. But we did not end in mid-air, as I had imagined; Coult re-energised the vocal contribution for a dramatic coda-like final section.

Pioro stood at the centre of the semi-circle of singers and it was fascinating the way, at key moments, he cued them. The result was intriguing and rather striking, a modern evocation of Hildegard that remained true to her spirit yet was not afraid to push the music into the present.

Pioro's own piece, which he described as a sonic meditation, was far shorter but explored similar ideas, creating something quiet and intense.

Nick Martin's Growth Rings is a substantial four-movement work written in 2020 for Daniel Pioro, and premiered by Pioro and The Willow Consort, conductor Danny Purtell, in Copenhagen in September 2020 in a programme that also included Bach's Partita No.2 with the chorales. 

Martin's choice of text hovers between the sacred and the secular. The first movement, 'Kyrie - Ciaccona' mixed the Greek Kyrie with a poem by Swedish-speaking Finnish poet Edith Södergran (1892-1923), 'A Foreign Song' set American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), 'Little Astronaut' set British writer Robert MacFarlane and 'Wachsenden Ringen' set Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). But apart from the sense that the texts' meanings might have inspired Martin, the work could have been wordless because little or no text came across in the performance. The Marian Consort gave poised and smooth account of the music, yet text seemed less important than physical beauty and expressiveness of the sound. Even the different movements' different languages (Swedish and Greek in the first, German in the last and English in the middle two) hardly counted.

This was a work that explored timbre and texture. The first movement placed the strenuous violin writing against smooth, sustained choral textures. The violin's dramatic gestures seeming to control and to punctuate the vocal contribution. The result was a remarkable sound-world and somewhat hypnotic. The second movement 'A Foreign Song' placed us in a similar world, the deliberation and deliberate strangeness of the choir offset by the busy, virtuoso violin performance, yet the vocal setting seeming to deliberately concentrate on syllables rather than meaning. This aspect became frustrating in the third movement, 'Little Astronaut' when Martin had individual vocal solo lines rising out of the texture, yet these were without apparent context. This movement explored the musical material twice, and thus it had a rather leisurely feel to it and frankly, I felt that Martin extended things way beyond what the material was suitable for. We led into the short final movement without a break, and here Pioro's questing violin playing contrasted with the dark, opaque choral writing.

There was no denying the performers' commitment to the music and the performance was a testament to the intensity of Pioro's playing and the poise and technical skill of the singers. The result explored some fascinating and at times magical sound-worlds, but Martin seemed to extend the musical material far beyond its needs. The work received a warm response from the audience, yet did not please everyone and during the interval we overheard one older gentleman vehemently expounding that Growth Rings had been the worst piece he had ever heard at Wigmore Hall!

There is no doubting that Johann Sebastian Bach would have regarded the idea of performing the 'Chaconne' from his Partita No. 2 with a vocal contribution highlighting the chorales embedded in the work as simply weird. The theory about the chorales in the movement is still somewhat speculative. But if the chorales are deliberate then there is a case for implying that, as with Bach's fascination with numerology, the presence of the chorale was all and the audience didn't need to notice its presence. But also, he could take for granted that these melodies were ingrained into his listeners, they would have picked them out.

What was remarkable is that the performance worked, in the context of a very modern meditation on Bach's music. It helped that Pioro's approach to Bach's violin writing was very contemporary, without resorting to over romanticising. The 'Allemande' was very free, his phrasing evocative and Pioro's playing style definitely linked through to his playing of the music in the first half. There was a very modern freedom to Pioro's approach to Bach's musical line, seeing Bach's violin writing through contemporary eyes. I am not sure that you would have danced to Pioro's 'Courante' but there was vivid passagework allied to great freedom to the rhythm. His playing in the 'Sarabande' was plangent with a lovely use of silence, whilst his phrasing created real intensity. The 'Gigue' was perky and definitely dancey; not just busy, but with real shape and meaning to the passagework.

The 'Chaconne' was quite remarkable. The overlapping phrases of the disembodied chorales introduced another expressive layer, reinforcing the violin. Listening to it, I wonder how many of the first listeners to the work would have picked up on the chorale links, and we return to Bach's use of numerology, a concept's presence was toward the greater glory of God rather than for the delectation of listeners. For this performance, it helped that Pioro took a modern approach to the music and there was certainly nothing sedate about his playing, often going at it and giving us some stupendous passagework.

This was a fascinating and somewhat experimental programme, and it is wonderful that Wigmore Hall is able to give Pioro the space to explore in this way. The music, whether old or new, will never be mainstream in this form yet this was a wonderfully thought-provoking evening.

The Marian Consort (Caroline Halls, Alexandra Kidgell, Sarah Anne Champion, Rory McCleery, Will Wright, Benjamin Durrant, Jon Stainsby, Thomas Lowen)

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