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Music by Harle and Maxwell Davies,


As the Dean of Southwark Cathedral observed, the second concert in this year's City of London Festival, on 22 June 2009, marked not one but two 800th anniversaries: that of London Bridge -- the first stone of which was cut on the same day 800 years ago (with further octo-centennial celebrations in mid-July) and of the University of Cambridge. Highlights of the programme were two premières, by John Harle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, commissioned for each occasion, each superbly performed in the inspiring ambience of Southwark Cathedral before a capacity audience by the Choir of King's College Cambridge and the Cambridge University Musical Society Choir and Orchestra, under their musical director Stephen Cleobury.

The concert theme of 'solstice' permeated the programme which opened with the dramatic depiction of light from 'Chaos' in Haydn's Creation in which the CUMS Orchestra performed with professional finesse, with weighty emphasis on the tutti chords, and the mysterious dissonances and woodwind gestures clearly etched in the spacious cavernous acoustic of the Cathedral. The staccato bassoon and creamy clarinet solos were especially well defined, while chromatic motifs rising smoothly over the still harmony seemed phophetic of Tristanesque chromaticism in their intensity. The baritone Ashley Riches was a booming Raphael, his noble timbre resounding with potency against the full CUMS Choir as it explored the pianissimo range before exploding into bright dazzling colour at the word 'Light'. Stephen Cleobury paced it with precision and tension, so that all details were full of suspense and clearly articulated.

John Harle. Photo © 2005 Nobby Clark
John Harle. Photo © 2005 Nobby Clark

Light as desire and love formed the theme of the Festival Commission, John Harle's innovative, appealing cantata City Solstice, a Love Song to London Bridge, given a stunning world première by the Choir of King's College Cambridge, with David Goode, organ, and the composer as solo saxophonist. Most riveting in effect were the imperceptible dovetailings of high sustained notes between Sebastien Johns' pure treble voice and Harle's soprano saxophone, resounding across the echoing spaces of the Cathedral. Both music and poetry, by John Pickard -- with whom Harle collaborated on his 2005 folk opera -- quote the famous song 'London Bridge is Falling Down', alluding to the victory in London of the eleventh century Norwegian King Olaf over Danish invaders.

The refrain 'My Fair Lady' appears only sporadically at first, its first full rendition left until the third poem, 'Solstice', in a two-part round sung while the choir gradually withdraws. It is one of several evocative theatrical gestures, the first being at the start when choirboys formed an arch through which the treble entered with a candle and crust of bread. In the final song, 'Sacrifice', the treble is answered by eerie off-stage responses, while the music recapitulates the mood and material of the opening song 'Recession', the setting of 'words unwrite as they are written / words unspeak as they are spoken'. In the final song the words concern the myth of children being trapped in the bridge, the creative flow of life, and (to the London Bridge refrain) the 'pleasure of water'.

Harle's style here displays an unusual balance between organic development of a single motif and a postmodern juxtaposition of styles, archaic liturgical modal textures, arresting jazz modal harmonies and rhythms, and acerbic chromatic harmony. The three-note motto, a semitone and minor third, is shaped into an inverted arch, symbolic, perhaps, of the arches of London Bridge. Introduced by the treble at the start, it is answered by saxophone arpeggios which recur repeatedly. The motto permeates the work, especially the saxophone ostinatos and cadenzas, showing Harle's virtuosity, as in the second half of 'Recession', a syncopated seven-eight dance for male alto, organ jazz chords and volatile sax ostinato, with springy choral responses 'Dance over my Lady Lee'. 'Pursuit', the second poem, began with sumptuous a capella harmonies matching the nocturnal imagery, whilst at its thrilling climax, the arch motto is stridently projected in augmentation for 'We shall build a bridge of fire', followed by a disarmingly touching a capella conclusion.

Harle's cantata offered a bright contrast to the more sober and even sombre Maxwell Davies works, firstly his bleak yet ultimately ravishing Solstice of Light composed thirty years ago in 1979, a setting of a lengthy poem by the Orcadian George Mackay Brown, about the history of the northern islands to the time of St Magnus. It was performed with conviction and precision by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Ashley Riches, baritone and David Goode, organ under the finely sculpted shaping of Stephen Cleobury.

The contrasting alternations of choral or solo voice sections with arresting cadenza-like organ commentaries conveyed the development of the Orkney saga with potent imagination, from the dark dramatic textures of the start to the Cathedral-choir glow in the final stanzas, an evocation of the arrival of Christianity in the figure of the Viking Prince St Magnus. A work clearly infused with the spirit of the dance, evident especially in the central, folk-inspired movement 'Solstice of Light', it is also imbued with with a hard edge and often chilling bleakness, as compelling as the richer sensuous sounds that reach a ravishing climax in the final prayer to St Magnus.

The final work of the concert was Maxwell Davies' The Sorcerer's Mirror, an environmental cantata to the poetry of former poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, here receiving its London première. The City of London Festival was an ideal occasion since, though it was a CUMS commission for the 800th Anniversary of the University of Cambridge, where it received its world première at King's College Chapel on 13 June 2009, the poem is mainly about London. Beginning 'Midnight and midsummer in London', it goes on to depict 'Rain settling over Camden and Kentish Town' and a '... storm which passes ... towards Kings Cross'.

Ostensibly about climate change, yet tackling man's role in the urban and cosmic habitat, the work's colouring is dark, with heavy bass textures, frequent low brass chorales and bass strings, infused with perhaps an overly ponderous tone. Yet at the same time it is enlivened with compellingly vivid textures such as fugati based on sinewy string melodies doubled by voices, mercurial switches from acerbic to tonal harmonies, emphatic word repetitions, fiery climaxes and a strikingly evocative conclusion by a solo treble.

Under Cleobury's masterly command the CUMS Chorus and Orchestra drew impressive sonorities. As throughout the concert his control was superb, and while his gestures were never demonstrative and even well camouflaged, he elicited remarkable accuracy and clarity, tremendous shaping and colour of phrasing and immaculate intonation especially in the cluster clashes of Maxwell Davies' idiom. The work is laced with word-painting and micro-responses to the text, from the initial homophonic textures of 'Midnight and midsummer in London', which begins as the poet steps out 'through the French windows' to see the 'earth more clearly turn', at which point the music shifts to an aptly lilting triple time metre.

The earth's 'sleep' is evoked in a low meditative low brass chorale; an ominous timpani beat then announces the 'dark green wind' and the image 'an apple tangles with a bristly vine' elicits dissonant spiky counterpoint, with the idea of the 'dark earth wakes and looks on' conveyed in limping falling gestures, evocatively shaped by the CUMS Chorus, leading to a huge and shrieking climax. The tolling timpani beat resumes for the second movement, 'I see what I hear', where the idea of climate change, 'scatters me / over the polar cap and snapped of sea-ice', is suggested in driving accelerating rhythms and a sudden braking as 'icicle grass is sculpted in silence'.

At this point an extended fugato develops in the strings, the melody returning chorally after the rich, if dour, repetitive climax at the cosmic image of 'starfields' where mythical gods are playing games with the universe. At the end of the third movement, a galvanic clashing climax depicts the 'burnt offerings' of a polluting society. The fourth movement, 'Here comes the rain', begins dramatically with propulsive brass, as the poet's lawn becomes a 'Sorcerer's Mirror' for global warming, flooding and natural calamities. Maxwell Davies uses here intriguingly triadic harmonies and dancing metres, yet plunges once more into a mire of bass clusters, evocation of a storm which eventually passes in the final movement, 'unravelling downhill', while the garden 'returns to grass again'.

The refreshing contrast of colour to the glowing tones of the treble Sebastien Johns was an intriguing touch which highlighted the final lines, where the poet, standing for society, is no longer innocent but self consciously 'crouched like a guilty thing', aware of the consequences of environment misuse, 'the bare horizon behind me and beyond it the other cold planets in their broken chain'. Symbolising the need for responsibility towards the future, perhaps, it is the treble who draws one into the dilemma, the chorus echoing the phrases 'bare horizon' and 'cold planets' and 'broken ...' over a deep orchestral bass, in a thought-provoking, atmospheric conclusion.

Copyright © 5 July 2009 Malcolm Miller,
London UK







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