Towards the Millennium's on-going survey of modern music has now reached the Sixties. And Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus opened this year's series of concerts at the Festival Hall last Friday with performances of two of the most impressive choral works from that era, Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles and Henze's striking political statement The Raft of the Medusa. It was a fascinating pairing: Stravinsky's late masterpiece existing, as it were, outside time while summarising the composer's detached and monumental world in the most concentrated terms; Henze's expansive post-Expressionist oratorio firmly rooted in its era and presenting a stirring message of protest and leftist commitment.
The very performance history of The Raft of the Medusa is typical of its time: the premiere, planned for 1968, had to be postponed after student protests had disrupted the occasion - by no means to the disapproval of Henze himself - and it was not rescheduled until 1971. It was going to be interesting to see how well the music would survive the circumstances of its creation. Other political works that sounded electrifying when performed against the backdrop of those events which had helped give them life have sometimes failed to make the same impression at a later date. They have proved to be incidental music to history rather than an embodiment of it.
We need not have worried, for the beauty and excitement of Henze's sound world, and the electric charge that his humanitarian vision generates, have kept the music alive. Its story of how the officers aboard the wrecked frigate Medusa betrayed their crew by cutting them adrift on the open sea is told in a spoken narration that links a passionate sequence of ensembles and commentaries, reaching a climax in a "fugue of survivors". Here, in the composer's words, the spirit of revolution finds a voice. And the musical urgency of the whole structure lifts it out of the picturesque and the particular, lending it a deeper significance. It was splendidly paced and characterised under Rattle's direction, with committed soloists in Juliane Banse, David Wilson-Johnson and a dramatic narration from Franz Mazura.
How different the intensely concentrated forms of Stravinsky's last major work, his pocket Requiem as he called it. And yet, in the extraordinary "Libera me", where we hear an unforgettable texture of praying and chanting unique in the composer's output, something of the protesting Sixties is reflected, if through a refining prism. Like that other late-miniaturist masterpiece, the "Aldous Huxley Variations", which gives the impression of being twice as long as its incredible five minutes, the Requiem Canticles compresses a world of grandeur and expansion by eschewing all rhetoric and retaining in its structure only bone and sinew.
Rattle, with his choir and orchestra, and soloists Deborah Miles-Johnson and David Wilson-Johnson, caught the edgy immediacy of Stravinsky's late manner perfectly, and left a haunting after-glow with the chiming postlude. What a journey the composer had travelled since the bell ringing that ended Les Noces.
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