An enterprising if variable programme of ‘Music for People’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom‘Music for People’ at the Purcell Room:   Endymion, EXAUDI, Simon Wall (tenor), James Weeks (conductor), Purcell Room, London, 18.09.2011 (CG) Arvo Pärt: Fratres (version for string quartet) (1977, rearranged later)
Joanna Bailie: Artificial Environment No.6 (World première)
Arvo Pärt: Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrim’s Song) version for tenor/baritone & string quartet (1984/2001)
Philip Venables: numbers 76-80: Tristan und Isolde (World première)
Arvo Pärt: Summa (version for string quartet) (1977/1991)
Arvo Pärt: Stabat mater (1985)

This was the first of two concerts by the enterprising Endymion Ensemble, and the equally adventurous vocal group, EXAUDI, under the heading “Music for People.” Why the title, you may ask? Is there music composed for non-human animals? For gods and angels, yes, but surely all composers write for people…so the explanation has to be concerned with the style of music performed here, which in different ways conforms to the “new simplicity” promulgated by certain minimalists, and the later works of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt in particular – although Pärt himself doesn’t consider himself to be a minimalist, and dislikes being labeled at all.

You either love or hate this approach to music, but I’ll come back to that later. For now we only need to know that Pärt came to his later style of composing after using various contemporary styles and having grown dissatisfied with the complexity of them. It is the absolute opposite of, and a reaction against, anything descended from Schoenberg’s atonal or twelve-note methods, which had ruled the roost in most contemporary circles for so long, and had alienated many music lovers. The opening work, Fratres, is a case in point. It exists in umpteen different versions for various ensembles, perhaps the best known being one for string orchestra, and structurally it consists of several episodes separated by a very simple repeating rhythmic leitmotif. In tonight’s version for string quartet, the second violinist is required to play a perfect fifth drone throughout, and after the opening leitmotif, the other players weave their parts in harmonics. These were not quite secure in tonight’s performance, but never mind, things became far more confident as the piece progressed into more normal registers and the episodes became more expressive. But you have to use words like “expressive” rather carefully. The piece never changes dramatically, but flows along at the same tempo with the same rate of movement. It is sad, modal, and altogether bleak; fans revel in its quiet peacefulness.

In Joanna Bailie’s Artificial Environment No.6, the quartet was joined by two singers from EXAUDI, and a prepared tape. It was a little difficult to make sense of the somewhat pretentious programme note, but we were prepared for motorway noises and birdsong, and heard both very clearly, the roar or drone of the former frequently dominating the proceedings. A spoken text appeared and disappeared, and notes from the tape were picked up by the two singers and the string quartet. What we ended up with was a collage of effects separated by periods of silence; effective in its way of creating a rather mesmeric sound picture, but lacking a strong musical idea.

Pärt’s Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrim’s Song) is a setting for tenor (or baritone) and string quartet of Psalm 121. Its main oddity is that the Psalm is intoned on one of two notes, while the quartet provides all the musical interest. Endymion and Simon Wall performed beautifully; and you either find enormous spirituality in the work or, dare I say, find it frankly somewhat boring after a while.

Numbers 76-80: Tristan und Isolde, by Philip Venables, began in a striking fashion with the quartet bashing out perfect fifths fortissimo; as the piece develops the excellent EXAUDI singers spoke most of Simon Howard’s strangely exciting if rather baffling poem. There’s genuine wit here, and pathos, and really terrifically flamboyant writing for the instrumentalists. What a thrilling moment there was when the singers suddenly burst into song rather than the spoken word! This composer is gaining a great reputation for original and sometimes quite brutally exhilarating music, and it’s well worth watching out for him.

Pärt’s Summa was originally composed in 1978 as a setting for voices and organ of the Credo (“We believe in one God”) and later rearranged for string quartet stripped of its text. Admirers love the timelessness and mystery of the haunting modal harmonies; I was struck by its similarities to aspects of Vaughan Williams’s work, especially in its modality, though it has to be said that VW would never have continued in precisely the same vein for so long, and it is the very lack of direction which gives this music its special “spiritual” quality.

And so to the major work of the evening: Pärt’s StabatMater. In this work, Pärt’s allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church becomes particularly apparent; also, some of the music seems to hark back to something akin to Gregorian chant. It is scored for violin, viola and cello, with two female and one male singer. There was no doubting the sincerity and effectiveness of the performance and Pärt’s own pilgrims, clearly in evidence in the audience, must have been deeply moved by it. As for me, I needed to clear out my ears with some healthily human dissonant Bartok afterwards. There’s only so much that I can take of music in a single key with little contrast or light relief, and this was just too much.

Christopher Gunning