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As the climax of the concert, the world première of Judith Weir's Concrete was a tour de force, dynamically conducted by Martin Brabbins, and beautifully sung and played by the BBC Chorus and Orchestra, with Samuel West as speaker, who infused the reading of John Evelyn's diary accounts of the Great Fire of London with a certain 17th century nobility. That 'tale' formed a unifying thread in the diverse texts and musical ideas, conveyed by a variety of choral movements. Elegantly paced and keenly crafted, the whole work was very enjoyable, with a glowing, dramatic aura. There are five 'movements', some linked and with an extended orchestral interlude at the centre, between the second and third movements. Though again very triadic, consonant, and perhaps lacking some dissonant bite, the chords move in angular often unpredictable contours; and if there is little overt counterpoint there is much overlapping, alternating, and contrast.

The work opens with a bold, arresting introduction to the most extended of the five movements, which has both an archaic aura due to its modal chant-like simplicity and a clearly contemporary dramatic element: a blend of old and new, past and future. The chorus' exotic repeating of the names of River Goddesses, 'Temeno, Sileo, and Sulevia', initially projected through two rising motifs in the choir, was extended on the third statement: a clear thematic opening which makes a potent impact. After this the choral colour switches dramatically to the low female voices, 'Damara, Divona', enhanced at last by swooping strings and brass. The final line is strengthened by men, for a full mixed choir statement. The speaker then begins, rhythmically over a recitative-like texture: short dry chords in piano and wind, then in increasingly complex alternations with choral textures which, while recalling an earlier style of British choral music, form a colourful backdrop enriched with the string swoops and clarinet trills. The eye witness account of the Great Fire is compelling in itself, here even more so, street names ('Fish Street', 'Bankside', 'Thames') cleverly intertwined with the earlier choral 'Temeno and Tamesis' (after which the river is named).

A livelier final section begins with a ninth century Latin song brilliantly set for basses, fast and virile, alert, light-footed. This is impregnated with women's voices singing Greek words to a chant like, slow phrase, accompanied by string swoops, the whole kept energetic with unpredictable accents on individual words, and dovetailing with the speaker, who now begins to describe the fire spreading and growing. Here the flames are evoked onomatopoeically in the repetitive syllables of the word 'reoreoreoreore' for the whole choir which, with a compelling intensification to the climax, combines for the first time on a fortissimo tutti, as the flames 'devoured in incredible manner houses, furniture and everything'.

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Copyright © 5 February 2008 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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