The London Première of James Dillon’s Thought-Provoking Stabat mater dolorosa

 James Dillon: BBC Singers, London Sinfonietta, Sound Intermedia, Ilan Volkov (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 21.1.2015 (MB)

Stabat mater dolorosa (London première)


James Dillon’s ‘cantata’ – his own description – Stabat mater dolorosa had its first performance at last November’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival; this was its London première. Co-commissioned by the HCMF, BBC Radio 3, and Casa da Musica, Porto, it is quite unlike any ‘setting’ of the poem I have heard, despite the surprising direct quotation from Pergolesi that surfaces some way through its hour-and-a-quarter duration. Why the inverted commas? Only some of the poem is set; apparently, Dillon went so far as he felt able and then stopped. Perhaps more importantly, the text is not always readily audible; more than once, I thought of Nono’s Il canto sospeso, and indeed of Stockhausen’s (misplaced?) criticism of it in Die Reihe: the effect seemed somewhere between Nono’s intention and Stockhausen’s reception, albeit with a far greater sense of restraint. However, there were times when the text was readily audible, for which considerable praise should be offered to the BBC Singers.

The background ‘chatter’ of ancillary texts is deliberately not perceptible in its detail, presenting an interesting comparison and indeed synergy with the relatively sparing use of electronics. Picasso’s idea of the ‘weeping woman’ melds with the philosopher Julia Kristeva’s Héretique de l’amour, a text in which she considers the Stabat mater in relation to her experience of child birth and her thoughts upon the Virgin Birth. (I am relying on Dillon for that information, since I have yet to read any Kristeva.) Rilke’s Visions of Christ and Donne’s A Valediction of Weeping are also present. We only know that because we are told. Does that matter? I am instinctively suspicious of conceptual art (reactionary that I am?) but in this case, I really could see no harm, nor could I hear it, in a little background – in more than one sense. The idea of a ‘canonical’ text, a term Dillon used more than once in a brief post-concert discussion, being mediated by later writing is after all difficult to avoid in any non-fundamentalist consideration of texts as developing works.

 Rather to my surprise, the score really does come across as a reimagining of a Baroque cantata. One senses something akin to ritornello form and sub-divisions not entirely dissimilar to those of the old ‘cantata Mass’. (Perhaps incongruously, perhaps not, it was Haydn’s post-Baroque Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae that sprang to my mind both during and after the event.) Picasso’s ‘weeping machine’ and what one might think of its predecessors in earlier Spanish painters such as Murillo also featured strongly in my initial response. To quote the composer, whom I read afterwards, ‘Picasso’s strange but fascinating metaphor of a “weeping machine” becomes a central image in the work, whereby I cast the mechanics of mourning as a slow machine, a music which unfolds in slow motion.’ That ‘slow motion’ might take some getting used to, but actually one’s ears adjust – or at least mine did – reasonably quickly. There are moments, passages of considerable beauty, not entirely unlike Baroque obbligati. Various instrumentalists from the splendid London Sinfonietta took their opportunities to shine, without any hint of standing out too boldly. Alastair Mackie’s trumpet lingered especially in the memory. The caesuras challenged too, but productively: there still seemed to be an overarching modernist structure, rather than a mere post-modernist assemblage for us to make of what we would.

 The work clearly requires more than a single listening, so I am reluctant to say much more, but I have little doubt that such listening would be well rewarded. Insofar as I could tell, Ilan Volkov directed his forces with remarkable sympathy and understanding. The London Sinfonietta has long excelled in such repertoire; long may that excellence continue.

Mark Berry

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