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Reviews

09 May 2019

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Cecilia McDowall’s Da Vinci Requiem (world premiere) at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Da Vinci Requiem at the RFH

Photo credit: Andy Langley

 

It has never been just the quality of da Vinci’s output that puts this Renaissance polymath on such a unique pedestal – it’s the breadth of it as well. Vasari had suggested da Vinci was a talented musician – indeed, Emanuel Winternitz published an entire book in 1982 devoted to this subject alone – but it is probably the crossover into science and invention which most fascinated him in relation to music as a subject rather than composition itself.

It’s perhaps an exquisite irony – though I’m unsure whether it’s intended - that in Cecilia McDowall’s new Da Vinci Requiem – of which this was the world premiere – the first quote she should use from a da Vinci source comes from his Codex Atlanticus, dating from between 1478 to 1519, and which in its more than one thousand leaves contains many drawings devoted to musical instruments – some, it should be said, of quite unfathomable complexity. It’s almost a nice touch.

McDowall’s previous choral works – the Stabat Mater, for example - have singled her out as a composer with a gift for combining lyricism and romanticism in her music – it can sound expressive, and often is, though the scale of the invention always looks backwards rather than forwards. You sometimes feel when listening to McDowall’s music that the voice is not an overly distinctive one – and that often felt the case in this new work. Her scoring for the orchestra doesn’t always favour their sound against the chorus – though, I think, this is largely because she tends to evoke a darker, more resonant palate from the lower strings; I rather thought six double-basses was a tad less than ideal, particularly when the double woodwind and brass could often appear so strident. But there were some beautifully constructed moments – the opening of the ‘Introit and Kyrie’ with a penetrating harp gliding through the orchestra was inspired, and the almost relentless beating of the timpani had the hallmarks of McDowall’s profound use of rhythm in her music.

I felt a little unsure about the translations of da Vinci’s codices into English (though the long ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ was beautifully done in a text by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and was written as such). Rossetti’s poem is the only part of this work which is based on an actual da Vinci painting which the poet had written while standing in front of the work in 1848. If you often felt McDowall was in tune to the underpinned chromaticism and sonorities of the requiem elsewhere in this work, there sometimes felt in this part of it a tendency to pull that apart. Rossetti’s text is dark, painful to read and haunted by death – and yet McDowall strives for music which is quite the opposite – it reaches towards a dissonance (though a restrained one), a jagged edge and the weight in the strings is notably absent. Perhaps because the painting evokes so much of a Milan ravaged by plague, and Rossetti’s text is a response to the revolutions which politicised Europe in the year it was written the music has a distinctly southern Mediterranean feel to it; it almost glowers like a spiky Spanish habanera.

The choral writing – if some of that for the two soloists occasionally doesn’t – is often a model of clarity, especially when the male and female choruses sing divisi. The ‘Benedictus’ invokes the separation of the two – one floating angelically, the other singing in plainchant. That problem with the soloists sometimes straining to be heard was pronounced in the ‘Agnus Dei’ where the soprano voice seemed muffled, unable to soar as she should; less of a problem, because McDowall simply orchestrates it so differently – and more lightly – was the penultimate section for baritone where the voice had clarity.

ceciliamcdowall9 (1).jpgCecilia McDowall.

Kate Royal, the soprano, and Roderick Williams, the baritone, were largely impressive. Royal’s voice can sometimes sound overly small, though the lyrical beauty is often penetrating and rather intense even if the vocal strength to push through the orchestra and chorus is lacking. As a contrast to Williams’s darker, richer baritone, which often towered skyward, the melding of the two voices felt beautifully stated. It’s not often that the two voices sang simultaneously – and when they did McDowall was pointed in drawing out the contrast. In the opening ‘Introit and Kyrie’ Williams evoked the rosary-laced Latin of the opening of the requiem whilst Royal intoned the first statement of da Vinci’s codex. Rossetti’s ‘Our Lady of the Rocks’ is given over to the soprano but I wasn’t really sure that Royal delved too deeply into the text – though in part, I’m not at all sure the music asks for that kind of response either. It’s the one section of this work which seems puzzling to me. Royal seemed challenged by the ‘Agnus Dei’, her voice simply overwhelmed even if she strove for an intensity which wasn’t quite within her reach; Williams in his singing of the final da Vinci codex was deeply responsive to its somnolence and finality.

Perhaps McDowall’s strength has always rested in her ability to write for a chorus, and here the Wimbledon Choral Society were magnificent. Nothing seemed out of place – the women angelic, the men monastic – the intonation and timing exquisite. Neil Ferris controlled the chorus, soloists and Philharmonia impeccably – though perhaps a few lapses in orchestral balance, notably in the sometimes searing brass, seemed a little rogue in places.

The first half of this concert had begun with Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs. George Herbert’s poems, on which the composer based them, are simple and the music reflects this. Despite Vaughan Williams’s famed atheism – and later agnosticism – what he composed for them can sometimes sound quite the opposite, though they never really strike one as having any real intimacy with religion. But Roderick Williams, as he was to subsequently be in the Da Vinci Requiem after the interval, is never less than a revelation. He probably brought a greater sense of personal meditation, reflection and intuitive intimacy to the texts than one might normally experience in a performance of this music – and which it certainly needs. His intonation and impeccable phrasing borders on the luxurious at times – just as the richness and depth of his baritone cuts through an orchestra with impressive strength.

Such hallmarks were equally on display in Martin James Bartlett’s superb performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. What was so notable about this performance was how inside the music this young soloist was – this is a work which whips back and forth in a geometric pattern of pianistic invention. The mastery of the jazz elements, the dizzying keyboard trills, the shifts from major to minor keys were very impressively navigated. But it was fascinating during the Adagio to watch Bartlett almost disappear completely as he bent his head to almost touch the keyboard. There was no lack of freneticism in his playing, but neither was there a lack of skill in bringing off the work’s lyricism and expressive elements either.

Marc Bridle

Kate Royal (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Martin James Bartlett (piano), Neill Ferris (conductor), Wimbledon Choral Society, Philharmonia Orchestra.

Royal Festival Hall, London; 7th May 2019.

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