Baroque in our time

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Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36)

Christmas is nearly upon us and time for the Requiems, the Stabat Maters, to be performed in concert halls and churches up and down the country. Now, more so than ever, audiences, can’t seem to be able to get enough of these religious works. Their familiar musical settings are popular for a reason. Audiences are of course drawn to the sheer gorgeousness of the music. Both lyrical and dramatic, and accessible, even for the first-time concert goer, it is no surprise that Vivaldi, Pergolesi and Handel form an essential part of the choral cannon.

I took myself off to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an evening of ‘Sacred Baroque’ featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Vivaldi’s Gloria. Seeing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform together with opera star, Iestyn Davies, was an enthralling prospect . I had recently seen Davies in Handel’s sell out Agrippina at Royal Opera, had been transfixed by his Ottone and his duet with the wonderful Lucy Crowe.

The Stabat Mater is a choral work however, but with noticeable operatic frills. A sober start develops into one of the most dramatic pieces of its kind. It is a medieval hymn about the grief the Virgin Mary felt for her son at his crucifixion. There have been many Stabat Mater musical settings but it is Pergolesi’s composition which most people remember. My first experience of the sublime work was  in sensurround sound in a cinema in Paris. I still remember my teenage mind been blown away by hearing it in Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall the OAE musicians walked out from the wings. There is something so aesthetically pleasing about a compact baroque ensemble, the period instruments, the neat harpsichord with tiny keyboard; the violins, violas with their reddish hues, wind instruments. All of this in a beautiful setting. I hadn’t been to the QEH auditorium since its tasteful restoration. Wood panelling everywhere and walls that stretch back in accordion-like fashion from the stage to sharpen the acoustic.

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Queen Elizabeth Hall

A man walked out, clearly not a member of the ensemble. Had Iestyn Davies, ‘the star draw’ bowed out at the last minute? I held my breath. Soprano, Katherine Watson, was nursing a cold, we were told. But she had decided to go ahead and sing the Pergolesi and not Vivaldi’s Gloria, scheduled after the interval. 

The audience’s relief was palpable. Would Watson’s voice hold though? She appeared in a ravishing dress of midnight blue, putting on a brave face. Davies meanwhile, with gelled, sticking out hair, looked positively boyish in his close-fitting suit. With a poppy in his lapel to remind us of Armistice Day, he was all set for Pergolesi’s melancholic piece.

The opening section of Stabat Mater set the sombre mood with each voice taking turns to express sorrow in ever rising and interlocking dissonances. In the duets, Davies, seem to display great emotional intelligence, careful to calibrate his voice with Watson’s soprano. Cold notwithstanding, Watson’s voice is outstanding; lyrical, with a divine quality, and yet she was singing at three-quarter mast. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for her in 2020.

As you would expect, Iestyn, made light of the tricky vocal ornamentation and acrobatics that Pergolesi’s music demands. The counter-tenor’s mastery is awe inspiring, his enunciation superb and all the while he manages to maintain that centred core. Even more fascinating however was to see him connect with the audience, swivelling his body round almost one hundred and eighty degrees, working the whole room. You cannot underestimate the impact of really engaging with your audience these days. It is the secret to building up a solid following which Davies has done and needs to continue to do as he’ll be leaving these shores for a while to sing in the US.

Other highlights were oboe-player extraordinaire, OAE’s Katharina Sprekelsen, showing mastery of her instrument in Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in D minor.

Soprano, Rowan Pierce meanwhile demonstrated a purity and sweetness of voice in Domine Deus, rex coelestis (O Lord god, heavenly king) in Vivaldi’s Gloria.  Vivaldi’s upbeat, celebratory composition was the perfect antidote to the heart-rending Stabat Mater.

The Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, many of whom are soloists in their own right, showed complete command of their craft and their voices were well-balanced throughout. Together with the OAE orchestra, and under Steven Devine’s direction, the overall effect was a heady combination of professionalism and soul.

I very much look forward to the continuation of Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment’s Salvation and Damnation season in 2020. See here https://oae.co.uk/season/2019-20-season/  Highly recommended.

 

KH

 https://crosseyedpianist.com/2019/11/06/early-music-is-getting-younger/

Monumental Messiaen: Steven Osborne at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Olivier Messiaen’s monumental and profound work Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus) is one of the greatest works in the pianist’s repertoire, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such titans as Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in terms of its scale. It is one of the most extraordinary and ground-breaking works in twentieth-century piano repertoire, a work which has accrued iconic status and deep respect. That such a work was created at a time of great human suffering, and personal privation (it was composed in 1944, when the German occupation of Paris was in its closing stages), and yet expresses such joie de vivre, conviction, love, hope and ecstasy makes it all the more remarkable.

It is, above all else, an expression of Messiaen’s deeply-held Catholic faith – even more so than the Quator pour le fin du temp – a faith which involved sound and silence, beauty and terror, joy, love and an all-embracing sense of awe. It is music that puts listener and performer in touch with something far greater than ourselves, and yet one does not have to have religious faith to appreciate the enormity and emotional breadth of this work. Messiaen has an unerring ability to “ground” the music in a way that makes it more accessible through his use of recurring motifs and devices, in particular his beloved birdsong. These elements also give this tremendous work a cohesive, comprehensive structure – and it is only by hearing the work in one sitting, as opposed to listening to individual movements from it, that one can fully appreciate Messiaen’s compositional skill and vision. Like a great symphony, the work moves inexorably through its movements towards a gripping finale.

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and chocolate-box cards: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles, and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross”, if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

All twenty movements are constructed around three distinctive themes. The first, the Theme of God, a slow-moving chordal motif, heard first in the opening Regard (Regard du Père/Gaze of the Father). It recurs in V, XI and XV, and is always sonorous, luminous and profound. The second theme, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, first appears in Regard II. Turbulent and fractured, it signifies the beginning and the end of Christ’s life. The final theme, the Theme of Chords, is a sequence of four chords which are used in various ways throughout the entire work, most obviously in Regard XIV. In the final movement, all three themes are brought together.

Silence also plays a significant role in the music, never more so than in the penultimate movement where the sonorities, resonance and sound-decay of the modern piano are utilised with highly arresting effect. In some movements, the silences are like breaths or moments of hushed contemplation. Birdsong plays a meaningful part in many of the movements too (Messiaen was a devoted ornithologist), with chatterings and squawks, trills and shrills in the upper registers, yet always used melodically rather than for pure effect. There are even references to Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, a joyous, jazzy outpouring in Regard X (Regard de l’Esprit de joie/Gaze of the Spirit of Joy), and later a hint of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

Another important aspect is Messiaen’s “flashes”, colourful chords and clusters of notes or fragments which reflect Messiaen’s belief that it was only possible to comprehend the totality of God in “flashes”. To me, these are akin to the lines of stigmata found in paintings of artists such as Giotto, as well as the golden halos and symbolic devices found on Greek and Russian Orthodox icons. In the music we also hear tolling bells and carillon chimes, complex rhythmic motifs, and references to devotional texts, numerology, and Hinduism, as well as deeply portentous passages, suggesting Jesus’s fate. These aspects informed much of the composer’s thinking and became recurring elements in his later works. It was the last piece of sacred music Messiaen would write until 1960, and is the only sacred work he wrote for solo piano. It also holds the rather special distinction of being the longest piece of solo sacred piano music ever written (Liszt’s Harmonies poetiques and religieuses is the next longest, at 90 minutes).

The composer gives very clear directions and markings in the score to help the performer understand both the context of the music and the kind of sound he envisaged. For example, the recurring themes are marked each time their appear, and Messiaen indicates particular instruments too: the xylophone Regarde de la Vierge, bells in Noel, and the tam tam (a gong-like instrument) and oboe in Regard des prophetes, des bergers and des Mages.

At two hours in length, it is not for the faint-hearted, and it takes a special kind of performer who has the physical and emotional stamina to undertake such a task for it places immense technical and musical demands on the pianist. The expressive sweep of the work is vast, from the intimate, aching tenderness of Regarde de la Vierge (IV) to primal brutality of Par Lui tout a éte fait (VI) and the concentrated stillness of Je dors, mais mon coeur veille (XIV). As a consequence the work is rarely performed in full.

British pianist Steven Osborne has been playing this work for around 20 years now (and has made an acclaimed recording of it as well for Hyperion) and believes that it should be played without interruption to create “a deeper sense of engagement with the work as a whole, for both myself and the listener.” Becuase of his long association with the music, Osborne plays with an assured “settledness” and his deep understanding of the work enables him to create a cohesive whole. As a listener, one feels at once totally at ease with him on this epic musical and emotional voyage yet also acutely alert, as he is, to every shift in harmony and tonal colour, every nuance and emotion. Thus, the music feels freshly wrought, as new sonorities, new meanings are revealed.

He has a restrained virtuosity which puts the music front and centre, and his every gesture is freighted with meaning. He creates an extraordinary range of colours and tone – translucent filigree arabesques, shimmering, flickering trills, brilliant chirruping birdsong, plangent bass chords, rumbling, rolling Lisztian arpeggios….. And all despatched with an almost effortlesss sprezzatura. The performance was perfectly paced, Osborne’s clear sense of continuity allowing each movement to be heard as a statement in its own right, while also contributing to the extraordinarily powerful cumulative and architectural effect of the whole. The rapture and ecstasy of Messiaen’s faith was captured in a profoundly concentrated performance that reverberated with passion, spirituality, awe and joy. The long silence at the end before the applause, as we meditated on what we had heard, was a mark of our respect for performer, music and composer, further confirmed by a standing ovation.

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus – Olivier Messiaen

Steven Osborne, piano

6 November 2019, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre


FW