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Starting with a single note across the whole orchestra, a pedal point which roots the piece and sets its serious tone, the theme itself is introduced in pizzicato strings, a sequence of falling semitone gestures, traditional signs of anguish and pain, yet at the same time woven into a new and compelling pattern. The first variation transfers the theme to the woodwind, enriched with counterpoint, notably to pointed bassoon, while a lyrical countertexture arises in the strings, the rich chromaticism of which is infused with intensity and angst. Yet the mood subsides into a reflective, delicately oriental harp solo, its augmented seconds and a modality suggestive of cantillation. The first of two bold climaxes then ensues, blaring brass and sustained high pitch in strings a semitone away, a clash resolved when the violins' pitch is reharmonized by gentle tonal triads (the quote from Gesualdo). One of the poetic touches is the sudden glow of a solo string quartet semi chorus, playing the dissonances used by Gesualdo, symbolic of the pain of loss, a telling moment of intimacy and meditation.

Soon, the second climactic wave is reached with rich string and brass textures, the biting dissonance of Mahlerian intensity, after which the harp returns, this time in a theatrical dialogue with trombone symbolic for the composer of a dialogue of arab 'oud' and Jewish 'shofar', yet it also suggested a meeting of East and West, in the intermingling of mode and key, and inflected with a sense of passing despair in the trombone's downward glissando. The final phase is dreamlike, fading through the Gesualdo in a Schnittke-like gesture. The chords are luminously sustained by brass and strings, with the flute adding a modal motif with flattened 6th and 7th during which members of the orchestra whisper 'pacem' four times, an evocative gesture that highlights both the synthesis of eastern and western elements and the topic of a visionary dream of peace.

Handel's Dixit Dominus was ebullient with sprightly tempi, yet in one or two numbers this was too fast to the detriment of the soloists' arias and ensembles. Sloane was far too rushed in the opening chorus and 'Tu es sacerdos', in which the orchestral running bass was a gallop that threw its vocal riders off on the hurdles. Highpoints included Iestyn Davies' smoothly curved counter tenor solo 'Virgam virtutis', decorated with elegant lute continuo, and the final duet 'De torrente', displaying the sumptuous sopranos of Yvette Bonner and Rachel Nichols. In general choruses were somewhat ragged yet redeemed by a clear inner rhythm allowing syncopations to be emphasised and come alive.

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Copyright © 15 January 2007 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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