Friday 22 April 2016

Then to burst forth – we float…

It felt like careering along on a rollercoaster of emotion. Or surfing upon pounding, ever-increasing waves of the ineffable. At one point – at the climax of Never doubt I love (words that already have special resonance for me… – a meaning which now has multiplied…) – I knew how Gerontius felt, standing before his God. It was not just soul-rending. It was as if someone had reached deep within my heart and mind; unearthed my personal definition of the sublime, the divine, the celestial… and – for one extended moment – magnified it and presented it back to me a million-fold. Truth and beauty are my religions: and tonight, I prostrated myself before their joint altar; and communicated with rapturous angels of the empyrean.

The above movement is the stunning pivot around which Dobrinka Tabakova’s magnificent, essence-shattering Immortal Shakespeare revolves: circumscribing the perfect arc of man’s “exits and entrances” in music of such devastating purity and other-worldly harmony, that to say it was not out of place amongst – nay, was an equal of – three of the greatest works of transcendental radiance by Vaughan Williams, speaks volumes. (However, that is in no way going to prevent me from adding a few more said volumes myself….) This new work – performed here, in Holy Trinity Church – Shakespeare’s resting place – faultlessly (and with great gusto, and even more subtlety) by the Orchestra of the Swan and their Chamber Choir, under artistic director David Curtis, for the very first time – was itself the centrepiece, therefore, of a concert of quite the most “tumultuous and unquenchable power”.

The evening began with RVW’s paean to that most ephemeral of birds, The Lark Ascending. I have heard this orchestra, with the unsurpassable Tamsin Waley-Cohen on violin, play this many times (and if you haven’t yet got their CD of it, go and buy it now…) – and yet everyone involved managed to eke out yet more exquisiteness.

I felt the skylark rise, disturbed, from beneath my feet; the flutter of its rapid wings beating pulses of air into my inner being. I could see it, high above me, rapidly beating above the chalk downs; its loud, distinctive melodic call and warbling trills echoing, echoing…. Then parachuting; before climbing again. And again….

Waley-Cohen performs, interrogates this with such striking intensity – her tone, sublimely matched to the music, ranging from hushed earthiness to a beatific, soaring, incommunicable luminosity – that such images, such feelings, appear readily. This is her work: it flows so beautifully from her bow. And, needless to say, the orchestra are her match. All you need to know about them all is contained within this single piece of wonderment: their celestial dynamics; their shrewd tempi; their translucence….

And then Tabakova’s “Cantata for choir and orchestra” – five words that do not even begin to define this masterpiece. “Dobrinka says of this that it contains some of her finest music to date”, writes Curtis, in his introduction to the programme – and I would not, could not disagree. (And if you haven’t got the CD of some of her previous “finest”, String Paths, go and buy it now. Be warned, though, it will shred your heart and soul with its addictive, profound beauty….)

To me, her music sounds – and feels – both extremely modern, and yet extremely romantic (the nearest comparison, for me, I suppose, is Howard Skempton). And – thinking, for example, of the titles of the movements of her Concerto for Cello and Strings (‘Turbulent, Tense’; ‘Longing’; ‘Radiant’) – and her setting, here, of Never doubt I love (“Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia”) – it is also extremely emotional (which is, of course, A Good Thing).

That it is, in some ways, also ‘simple’ (although with many turbulent, technical undercurrents and textures flowing beneath the surface beauty), implies that I also find her music easy to listen to (again, A Good Thing…). However, it provokes intense feelings that I struggle to describe – in her own words, “music that grabs you and has something to say”.

But it is listening…. This is music that you can’t simply hear…. It pulls you in; questions you; forces you to pay attention – and there aren’t many composers who have that ability. (Few contemporary composers – to me… – seem keen to expose their own hearts – in the way, say, Schubert, Elgar, or, indeed, Vaughan Williams did. The ones that come instantly to mind include the late Peter Maxwell Davies; James MacMillan; and Arvo Pärt.)

But I am evading the issue. How am I supposed to “struggle to describe” what I heard, felt, tonight…?

I have lived with this work for a few months: but only in the form of its orchestral score. That its brilliance shines from the page is testament to Tabakova’s obvious talent and inspiration. Perform it – as it must be performed – and it evokes elation; bliss; ecstasy; and deep, deep turmoil.

If you weren’t there (and if you were…), then you can hear the work broadcast on Sunday at 16:00 on BBC Radio 3 (preceded by Choral Evensong, with this selfsame orchestra and choir, also from Holy Trinity). However, here are my (vivid) reactions – reading back through that now-autographed (and therefore treasured) full score.

The Prelude begins “With excitement”, growing into “wonder and anticipation” (the composer’s own markings) – which I found ethereal; and which the orchestra played with typical great feeling. The soundscape is stunningly original – Tabakova has a way of combining disparate instruments to render something fresh, something (sometimes) disturbing: and her instructions throughout are of great clarity – which is reflected in the resultant music. We are introduced to themes that will reappear – forming that “perfect arc” – one of which is a simple motif ‘spelling out’ the Swan of Avon’s own name. (This is almost a choral symphony: such is its grand scale and structure.) Our attention is grabbed; and the ground is laid.

And then the choir enters (directed, and trained – amazingly – by Suzanne Vango… – oh, my goodness, what power…). “All the world’s a stage”. Words at once so famous, but here so fresh, original. Now we know what we are in for: orchestral and choral delights. That opening phrase grows from mezzopiano to forte – and we will never hear them the same way again. Their magic is unleashed in this short movement. (And I wouldn’t be surprised, if Bill, looking down from his memorial, was grinning from ear to ear!)

This is followed by the somewhat deceptive Brave new world. With The Tempest also lending Prospero’s “set me free” to the seventh section, Dobrinka describes these textual excerpts as “little gems: which bookend the piece; give it symmetry” (more of that “arc”). Commencing with a “Playful, light”, almost jazz-like, syncopated motif for flute, clarinet and vibraphone; the strings and harp enter like little spirits, creeping almost imperceptibly, but adding quiet notes of menace. And then, one of the most gorgeous, rising themes I have ever heard appears (and, remember, we have just listened to The Lark Ascending…). “Arise” – and it does; and how. But, what’s that we hear? The ascent is completed by none other than Waley-Cohen, rising from the string section, with a descant of such purity that my heart may have stopped.

This is so very inspirational – paying tribute, almost; but taking us in glorious new directions. Again, this figure will re-emerge – and it does not lose its vigour in doing so. I stared at that beautiful wooden roof. How could I not? And the first of this work’s many tears streamed down my face. (Sorry, Dobrinka….)

It is a movement of “blessings” in so many ways. There is an air of mystery provided by the violin’s marvellous counterpoint; and yet the choir’s proclamations advance imperiously, wondrously. The trumpet calls, doubling Waley-Cohen momentarily; and yet we keep on ascending with the wonder of it all. “How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!” The music illustrates Shakespeare’s words with heaven-filling accuracy, potency and grace. And then the opening syncopated motif reappears: gentler, this time; and we go to meet the angels; all earthly matters left behind.

For one moment, there is a hint of a Vaughan Williams-like, gentle, melodic folk-tune “in the shoulder of your sails”. Such beautiful singing; such perfect pauses from Curtis. “And you are stayed for.” The orchestra here provides intermittent, gentle accompaniment (a magical scrape of the cymbal from the uncredited Jan Bradley – my player of the night: mastering the vibraphone, five temple blocks, a tambourine, the timpani, and those cymbals… – indicating “hoops of steel”). This is as magical as choral writing can be…. (In fact, it seems obvious – for example, reading the rhythms of the word-setting; as well as the ‘controlled’ – and, I think, relevant – use of melisma… – that Tabakova really, really enjoys choral writing! We certainly enjoyed the results….)

And then, just when you think you could not possibly be moved any more, tiny earth-tremors appear, in the form of what appears to be a simple, incessant ground bass, split, in fifths, between the violas and cellos. But you have to be wary, assuming anything here is “simple”. This is the movement that probed my very essence…

Doubt that the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move his aides,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love

…these powerful words initially, incisively, crisply whispered by the chorus (sending shivers down my spine); again, accompanied by that transcendent solo violin. Gentle murmurings from the bassoon and horn lead to the quietest zenith of spread harp chords and wind for that last line. How could we possibly doubt anything, on this evidence…? (I have written “Phew!” in the score at this point. That just about hits the spot, I think.)

A sustained high note – “Moving forward…” – from Waley-Cohen – and the pressure starts to build. Oh, so, so gradually, though. Those magical spread chords again. (Where did I put my soggy handkerchief?) And there is choral writing – but for the violins and harp. Such magic. The solo violin re-enters: as gentle as rain on a summer’s day. But this feels like a funeral procession, such is the state of my soul. The violin sighs with passion – “Hold back” writes the composer; and Waley-Cohen judges her rubato to shattering perfection. The build continues. Every member of the orchestra is playing, but we are merely at mezzoforte. There is so much more to come.

And then the violin, flute and trumpet deliver a descending theme, which, repeated, gathers with it spread chords of vehement perfection. “Hold back…”. This is it. And then the choir enters, singing those piercing words with instructional fortitude. No, this is it. But it continues to build. “Hold back…”. We have string writing that even Vaughan Williams may have been a little envious of. We fade to pianissimo. “But never doubt I love…”. How could I…?

Curtis paused. We all needed time to recover. And then gentle thrumming strings – “Tense, with suspense” – begin the next movement….

The King John “be fire with fire” speech, which forms the basis of this thrilling fourth section, features some of Shakespeare’s most powerful words (and on a level with anything Henry V declaims). And, again, the music matches it. A side drum alerts us to distant battle; an approaching army launches fanfares; and the choir instructs us not to “see fear”. But this is fearsome stuff.

Those fanfares grow in confidence; but the choir’s is greater. This is a battle of wills (with some superb percussion writing and playing). And suddenly the strings interject with growling, terminated crescendos. The battle is won; and fades away.

The fifth and sixth sections – Truth will come to light and All the world’s a stage – are conjoined; and reintroduce those earlier themes. As Edmund says in King Lear – “The wheel is come full circle, I am here.” But this is no simple repeat. Yes, the solo violin returns; but the music is developed, opened up (the nine-part choral writing at “many parts” is both illustrative and stupendous). Echoed motifs lure us on to the end. But it comes not yet…

…to that glorious “Arise” theme from Brave new world, we move seamlessly into the seventh section – Set me free, also, of course, from The Tempest. This feels inevitable and just. It (just) had to happen.

When it came to the seventh section, Tabakova admits that “I find old age difficult…. So much of what Shakespeare wrote about old age is depressing”. And one only has to take a sideways glimpse at, say, the above-mentioned King Lear, to concur. But, in his “farewell to the theatre”, The Tempest, she finally found what she was looking for. “It felt like a huge relief. The words are a little lighter than Julius Caesar – which was a potential contender. Prospero’s words – especially ‘set me free’ – felt more natural. They hint at immortality.”

So we dissolve into “Ethereal, resolved” woodwind and harp quavers, unsettling motions beneath the choir’s sustained music. But not for very long. The rising theme asserts its stunning supremacy. (But not for very long.) The woodwind and harp return, floating, bobbing almost… until those magical words: “set me free” – and then Shakespeare’s own theme cascades from trumpet to clarinet to flute, to oboe… finally to the strings, who ponder it, quietly, before taking us, even more gently, heavenwards.

The Postlude is an extended miracle of unaccompanied choral writing – a “chorale” – with just gentle support from the organ. In a way, it brings everything back to reality – “a poignant ending that I hope everyone in the church will experience and feel”, says Tabakova. And I believe we did.

The music, in these dying moments – a full-orchestral ppppp – is even more astonishing than that which precedes it. It truly is rivetingly beautiful. It gives Shakespeare’s memorial the life, the humanity, it describes. And we are left with the chorus hanging in space and time….

It therefore took me several extended, sobbing, moments to remember how to applaud. Let’s just say that Holy Trinity’s roof also hovered, raised by joy and amazement, for many, many minutes. We knew that we had witnessed, well…

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant…
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.

This is a work that will have a long, long life – far surpassing ours. The rest is silence.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis demonstrates both his unquenchable ability to write string music of magical qualities; and the Orchestra of the Swan’s ability to render them fresh, involving, edifying, even. Curtis explored the depths and the heights; the silences and the waves of sound. Simply put: yet more perfection. (He tells me that I am “generous” in my reviews. However, others tell me that I am simply stating it as it is. And I am.)

We ended the evening with the emotional pounding that is the same composer’s Toward the Unknown Region. And I simply cannot understand why this is not more frequently performed. Its setting of the splendiferous Walt Whitman’s Darest Thou Now, O Soul is appositely glorious and meaningful.

Here, Curtis’ mastery was in full flow. It would be easy to go full-out, hard-hitting the earlier summits of emotion; but the choir and orchestra held just enough back so that the final climax walloped you full-on with all its manifest glory.

Then we burst forth – we float,
In Time and Space, O Soul – prepared for them;
Equal, equips at last – (O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil, O Soul.

I am still floating. And will be for several days. (I also still have tears streaming down my sodden face. But I am happy. This was a remarkable evening. And I would not, could not have missed it for the world.)

Yet again, the full moon guided me home. I am so glad it knew the way. I felt lost, tiny in a gigantic world of beautiful sound. It cradled me. It cradles me still. (Thank you, Dobrinka. Thank you, David. Good night, all.)

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