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Reviews

22 Dec 2019

Prayer of the Heart: Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet

Robust carol-singing, reindeer-related muzak tinkling through department stores, and light-hearted festive-fare offered by the nation’s choral societies may dominate the musical agenda during the month of December, but at Kings Place on Friday evening Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet eschewed babes-in-mangers and ding-donging carillons for an altogether more sedate and spiritual ninety minutes of reflection and ‘musical prayer’.

Prayer of the Heart: Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gesualdo Six

Photo credit: Ash Mills

 

A sequence of Renaissance and modern works - the former frequently inspiring the latter, both directly and less consciously - was presented in an unbroken sequence which was performed and choreographed with serene composure, concentration and fluidity. Considerable thought, preparation and rehearsal had clearly been invested in both the concept and its manifestation. The seven singers (conductor Owain Park occasionally took a place amid his ensemble) began in the Hall gallery: their subsequent descent to the platform was effected inconspicuously and fluently; at times they departed leaving, the string quartet players alone on stage; the latter arranged themselves in a central arc, cellist Jacqueline Thomas seated, then later formed a line perpendicular to the rear wall. Finally, the singers and musicians came together in a broad semicircle which interlaced voice and strings, embracing and uniting all as one. If this sounds a little laboured, or contrived, that might have been a risk, but it was one that was avoided, so persuasive was the performers’ sincerity and cohesiveness.

The music of John Tavener framed the sequence. Into the darkness of Hall One pulsed the repetitive life-beat of Prayer of the Heart as, supported by the strings’ sustained pianissimo purity, the monastic mantra floated from on high. The work was originally composed for Björk and the Brodsky Quartet, to benefit the charity The Chain of Hope, and the Icelandic singer had been instructed to ‘sit on a low stool, bowing towards the heart’ to facilitate ‘the soul’s concentration, and its unification in ecstasy’. On this occasion the singers moved meditatively around the gallery, their sedate but fluent procession matching the work’s slow harmonic progression.

Subsequently, old and new were fused in a beautifully reflective chain. ‘Parce mihi Domine’, a setting of a text from Job by the sixteenth-century Spaniard, Cristóbal de Morales, as ‘reimagined’ by Latvian Ēriks Ešenvalds as a four-voice introduction to his 2005 oratorio Passion and Resurrection, initiated the musical and religious time-travel, the slow musical metamorphoses perfectly reflecting the wider concept of the evening. Arvo Pärt came to mind, not for the last time during the concert, and not least in the vigour, complementing the cleanness of sound, that was conjured by string interjections, harmonic interest and textual detail, such as the stirring crescendo through ‘et si mane me quaesieris’ (for now shall I sleep in dust).

This served as an entrée to Roxanna Panufnik’s Votive for string quartet - commissioned in memory of Cavatina Chamber Music Trust co-founder, Pamela Majaro - in which tentative gestures ushered in a yearning cello melody that became an elaborate vocalise, passed ever higher across the players, increasing in intensity and cadencing in a joyful major-key climax, the players’ flourished final up-bows conveying the work’s jubilant aspirations. Panufnik’s O Hearken followed. Setting verses from Psalm 5, it was a choral summons in which rich homophonic layerings formed a soundscape of gentle dissonance.

Owain Park’s Phos hilaron, a setting of one of the earliest Christian hymns, was sung in darkness, Gesualdo Six taking position in the Kings Place aisles and singing from memory, following countertenor Guy James’s well-defined and assertive solo melody. It was preceded by Hildegard von Bingen’s O Ecclesia, in which the tenor solo sat upon a warm hum and soft strings (no credit to an arranger was given); this was lovely singing but I felt as if the opportunity for more dramatic communication was not grasped.

There was drama, though, in Panufnik’s This paradise, a setting of Canto 23 from Dante’s Paradiso, the third part of the Divine Comedy, in which the combination of string quartet and six male voices produced some startling timbres and colours: portamento hums against tremulous gestures and fragile harmonics at the start of ‘A bird … her heart ablaze, awaits the sun’; rhythmic muscularity in ‘Triumphing the soldiery of Christ’; a storm of trills and scalic flights in ‘… bolts of fire, unlocked from thunder clouds’; echoes and piling seventh chords, adding enigma to the concluding ‘And so the perfect circling of that tune sealed its conclusion’.

Sarah Rimkus’s My Heart is Like a Singing Bird connected us to the madrigalian grace of the Elizabethan Renaissance by way of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols; Hennig Kraggerud’s Preghiera, written for the Brodsky Quartet, moved from meditation to improvisatory momentum, offering first violinist Gina McCormack some flights of fancy and martial energy into which to bite her musical teeth.

Then, we arrived at what seemed to the musical destination of this programme: Panufnik’s ‘completion’ of her father Sir Andrzej Panufnik’s setting of Polish poet Jerzy Pietrkiewicz’s two-stanza prayer, Modlitwa; and, O Tu Andrzej commissioned by the Brodsky Quartet in memory of her father. The former sounded, to my ear, full of Eastern European echoes - on this first hearing, I sensed the sound-world of Dvořák and Janáček rather than anything specifically ‘Polish’ - and featured strongly characterised solos by baritone Michael Craddock and tenor Joseph Wicks, which conversed with the cello’s harmonically inflected excursions. The latter saw Park join his ensemble once more to add his voice to the piling-up stacks of semitonal dissonances and harmonic piquancy.

We returned to Tavener at the close, his setting of The Lord’s Prayer bringing an expertly delivered sequence to a close, and in which it was lovely to see the experienced members of the Brodsky Quartet take their lead from Park and his young singers, and to feel all involved relish the collaboration.

So, after such pleasures, where’s the ‘but’? Well, if you were happy to sit back, shut your eyes and submit to the spiritual bliss, then all was well and good. If, on the other hand, you wanted to engage with the texts and reflect on the meaning conveyed as note and word conversed, combatted and entwined, there were problems: not least that, in the gloom in Hall One, it was impossible to read a single word of the printed texts provided in a supplementary programme sheet. But, also, Gesualdo Six threw the consonants into a sonic space where they became instantly undiscernible and irretrievable. This was a pity. An opportunity to really appreciate the spiritual union of words and music was lost.

But, given the numbers who rose to their feet to thanks the performers at the end of the concert, I guess this was of less irritation to most at Kings Place than it was to this listener, concerned as I was to experience the performance intellectually as well as emotionally. Never mind, next time I will simply shut my eyes and enjoy!

Claire Seymour

Prayer of the Heart : Brodsky Quartet & Gesualdo Six

John Tavener - Prayer of the Heart; Morales/Ešenvalds -Parce mihi Domine; Roxanna Panufnik -Votive, O Hearken; Hildegard von Bingen - O Ecclesia; Owain Park - Phos Hilaron; Panufnik -This Paradise; Sarah Rimkus -My heart is like a singing bird; Henning Kraggerud - Preghiera (Prayer); A & R Panufnik - Modlitwa, O Tu Andrzej; John Tavener - The Lord’s Prayer.

Kings Place, London; Friday 20th December 2019.

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