MUSIC / A year of living dangerously: Hilliard Ensemble - Vale of Glamorgan

Click to follow
DOWN THE years the Vale of Glamorgan Festival has been an enjoyable but scrappy event which has reflected the difficulty of mobilising a new audience in the turgid musical environment of south Wales. This year, after years of looking for a 'balanced' formula, the festival's artistic director John Metcalf has thrown caution to the winds and simply programmed music he likes. The result has been that improbable thing, a modern-music festival to which audiences have flocked in a real spirit of enjoyment.

Though his own music is enigmatically post-Tippett, Metcalf's taste as a planner has always been for the new simplicity, with a leaning towards 'crossover' and the ethnically progressive. His current lodestar is Arvo Part, with John Tavener, Kevin Volans and that old experimentalist from the Cardew / Tilbury days, Gavin Bryars, in close attendance.

It takes obstinacy, though, to envisage these composers as acceptable bedfellows in a series of concerts mainly in churches and with small vocal ensembles prominent. It was an extraordinary experience to squeeze on Saturday night into the tiny Norman transept of Ewenny Priory, near Bridgend, listening to music that might be described as the modern equivalent of Perotin among an audience of the kind Britten used to pack into Orford for his latest church parable.

What is the secret? Part's music has revealed a popular thirst for spiritual experience expressed in an essentially simple but not tawdry musical language. For me the beauties of his Berlin Requiem are spread too thin over half an hour. But on Friday at St Augustine's, Penarth, the response to this inward music, immaculately sung by the Hilliard Ensemble (with Christopher Bowers- Broadbent at the organ), was unmistakable. It confirmed Part's standing as a holy fool, enunciating profound truths in a mysteriously childlike speech.

His Stabat Mater, sung also by the Hilliard in Ewenny the next evening, more dramatically introduces elements of trochaic dance. Like the poem itself, it uses repetition to convey a sense of ritualised grief. But again the intellect is distanced, and though the sound-world does recall Perotin, Part's unswerving technical candour is light years from any medieval idea of the esoteric.

I have a slightly different feeling about Tavener, whose new four-part antiphon A Village Wedding sticks to his familiar way of exploring subtle contrapuntal techniques over a distended time-scale. Tavener's recent popularity as a - probably unwitting - purveyor of musical narcotics is suspect (there is nothing of the holy fool about him). This new piece instead shows him, once again, as a craftsman with a brilliant ear and a Stravinskian taste for remote ceremonies recast as icons.

The Hilliard Ensemble sang it all with aplomb and a marvellous sense of the music's significance, exactly as they would Josquin. An exposed but well-written new Requiem setting called Lux perpetua by the Bangor composer Jeffrey Lewis was presented with the intensity of Allegri. They were joined in the Stabat mater and in Bryars' touching, Faurean Cadman Requiem by the excellent Chameleon String Trio. Everyone here is agog to see what John Metcalf will come up with next year.