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<<<  <<  -- 4 --  Malcolm Miller    REBUILT CITY


The second movement, which follows attacca, begins with bells and chimes which signify the churches of London, again set to alternating phrases for men and women. At 'St Alban' the women's voices are brightly doubled by chime bells and brass, while a mellower cello sound shadowed the men's voices. As the two sections dovetailed and combined for rising sequences at 'St Giles', the music conveyed the proximity of the fire, by interspersing the speaker and chorus, the cross-cutting of whose lines produced an intriguing irony, the juxtaposition of a natural disaster so powerful that 'one was not able to approach it', with a manmade disaster, the burning of St Lawrence, 'broiled on a gridiron ... in the reign of the Emperor Valerian'. The movement reached a brass-enriched climax as the clouds of smoke were compared by the chorus to the 'Last Day' whilst Evelyn commented memorably, 'London was but is no more ...'

The reverberating tam-tam signalling an extended and exciting interlude, reminiscent somewhat of Shostakovich and Prokofiev in its piquant march-like, explosive textures, which could stand alone as a concert miniature, a structural trough from which the piece grew afresh. The final bass drum outburst led smoothly into the third movement, radiant with a version of the 'Cries of London', derived from a 19th century book of interviews with Londoners. It started with very high tessitura tenors, then low basses, again alternating the choral sections, with a terse and brittle accompaniment. Though the mood is secular, I found here the music attained the most ravishing lyrical and spiritual highpoint, echoing the expansive ecstasy of Elgar's Gerontius, right up to the final tremolando.

The fourth movement is a sanguine meditation of the destruction of 'wasteful wars' in the most complex textures yet, in which Shakespeare's Sonnet 55, conveyed through growling basses, in oratorio-like style, emerges in a hymn like grandeur, layered against the speaker's recitative about the 'vehement heat', until the music, like the fire, is reduced to cinders with tremolando strings. Though tracing the textual meaning closely, there is never any sense of the contrived, but rather, as in the transition to the final dancelike movement, a graceful dramatic persuasiveness. Here the Scottish folk tradition seems to emerge in a playful theme, underscored and doubled in flute, celeste, and piano, the chorus repeating single words extracted from a 1952 document about rebuilding the Barbican Centre from a WWII bombsite. The movement forms an aptly vibrant conclusion to the symphonic design, the syncopation underlining the new note of optimism, the future vision, and hope ... We hear this juxtaposed with the Evelyn diaries about presenting plans for a new city -- the parallelism of 17th and 20th centuries once again captured and reflected in the use of traditional music and contemporary textures. The coup de theatre occurs in the climactic appearance of the word 'Resurgam', a word apparently inscribed on the few remaining stones from the St Paul's Cathedral prior to its rebuilding, and incorporated in the present St Paul's: big chunky chords, chant-like rising thirds, each syllable emphasised in turn: Re-Sur-Gam, and when the nonchalant diarist finally 'took leave and went home', so did the chorus, finishing on a blazing Resurgam, abruptly curtailed at the cadence as if to communicate, through silence, the presence of the rebuilt City of London, a pre-echo of the metaphorical rebuilt city of Jerusalem.

In Concrete, Judith Weir 'tells the tale' with consummate artistry: when the composer rose on stage at the end, the audience was aflame with cheering, and there was much applause also for Martin Brabbins, the superb conductor, the speaker Samuel West, the BBC Chorus and Orchestra. A bouquet was given to Judith Weir, and, after her deserved ovation, it was time, like John Evelyn, to take our leave and go home.

Copyright © 5 February 2008 Malcolm Miller, London UK



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