This year's Spitalfields Festival provided three cautionary examples. Introducing his cantata Gethsemene (3 June), Matthew King spent half a paragraph sneering at critics (possibly justified, but hardly good politics), and then told us that, "Unusually, for a composer of Biblical pieces, Matthew King believes in God". Does he know something about Arvo Part, John Tavener or James MacMillan that I don't? - to say nothing of Byrd, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Franck, Bruckner, Poulenc, Stravinsky. Remarks like that don't put the informed listener in the most friendly and receptive state of mind.
Giles Swayne ended the note for his Missa Tiburtina (22 June) with an equally arresting statement: "While listening to it, it is worth reflecting that in the course of its 20 minutes, 600 children will have died, directly or indirectly, of starvation". A terrible thought, and worth remembering at any time. But how is that supposed to affect the way we listen? What we heard was an arresting piece of choral music, written with all Swayne's imagination and skill, and superbly performed by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge under Timothy Brown. Stylistically it seemed rather pot pourri- like at first, but the concluding Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei movements had an impressive simplicity and single-mindedness But the more absorbing the music became, the less inclined I felt to think about the problem of World Starvation. Were my ears tuned wrongly?
Swayne's next piece, The Silent Land, was written, we were told, in memory of the husband of a friend: "The cello is the dead person's soul; the semichorus is the bereaved family; the other parts are the grieving community". All right, you callous critic, criticize that if you dare! All I can say - with some trepidation - is that it reminded me of Janacek's remark that great emotion doesn't always mean great music. The long cello solo (performed by the excellent Raphael Wallfisch), set against slowly chanted lines from the chorus, "requiescant in pace" (may they rest in peace), had the manner of a big emotional outpouring, but to these ears it seemed almost interminable - especially so after the first part, an effective, and affecting setting of Christina Rosetti's poem When I am dead, my dearest.
Piers Hellawell spent a good part of the note for his The Building of Curves pondering the solving of the famous Fermat's Last Theorum. "However", he added, "it is not important to know this!" Too right. All one really needs to know is that The Building of Curves is short, and in two movements. This delightful, poetic, unostentatiously individual piece seemed perfectly capable of speaking for itself. And if Hellawell had called the piece, simply, Piano Quartet (which is, after all, what it is), I doubt that it would have lost any of its effect.
Yes, new pieces do sometimes need help; but often the best help they can get is a really good performance. The Schubert Ensemble of London made sure that The Building of Curves got that.
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