One musical odyssey begins, as another eight-year wait ends

Beginning a 10-year project to perform all of Schubert’s songs in concert

Artist: Conor Biggs

Venue: NCH Kevin Barry Room

Date Reviewed: April 18th, 2015

The odyssey has begun. Conor Biggs’s performance of the song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin at the NCH’s Kevin Barry Room on Sunday afternoon marked the opening of his 10-year, 35-recital Schubertreise, a project to perform all of Schubert’s songs in concert.

Biggs is not a singer who trades primarily on beauty of tone. He doesn’t give the impression of wanting to bewitch his listeners through gorgeousness of sound.

It’s not that he doesn’t do gorgeous from time to time, shifting from his slightly grainy norm into a realm of smooth-flowing honey. It’s just that he’s one of those singers who takes extreme care to ensure that the vocal line will at all times carry the words and communicate their import. He allows the words to mould the music and inflect its rhythm, rather than the other way around. And he thoroughly lives every phrase he sings.

Schubert, of course, wrote what John Reed has called his “parable of the doom that waits on innocence in an evil world” for high voice. Biggs is a bass baritone, and hearing the cycle in a voice as low as his definitely darkens the mood and character, not least because the piano part also becomes thicker and heavier. In Biggs’s performance, the suicide of the end seemed all the more inevitable.

On Sunday, his partner at the piano, Michel Stas, didn’t seem to have quite got the measure of the Barry Room, and needed to rein himself in to allow the voice to stand in clearer relief.

The Barry Room treated the audience to a selection of its usual noises from the outside world. It remains a mystery why the NCH and the OPW haven’t between them found the resources to put in some simple secondary glazing to provide a modicum of sound-proofing for this valuable venue.

In a recent interview for this newspaper, Biggs said that, with the high level of preparation he puts into this project, and the low level of the fees involved, his remuneration works out at €1 or so an hour. His dream is to land himself a patron to enable him to devote himself fully to his Schubert project.

There was someone in Sunday’s audience who probably shares similar feelings. Lindsay Armstrong, founder and manager of the Orchestra of St Cecilia, brought Irish audiences a 10-year project covering all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, and is currently engaged on a complete survey of the Haydn symphonies, which will resume at the Newman University Church on St Stephen’s Green on April 14th. Ulster Bank has dropped out as a sponsor of the Haydn series. But Armstrong has decided to forge ahead anyway, hoping that he can attract enough Haydn lovers to balance the books, or find an alternative sponsor. Details of the concerts are at orchestrastcecilia.ie.

Armstrong is not the only brave promoter out there. John Horgan, former chairman of the Labour Court and self-proclaimed musical obsessive, is planning a new Killaloe Music Festival on the weekend of June 14th to 16th. The artistic director is Joachim Roewer, principal viola of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and the focus of the concerts in St Flannan’s Cathedral will be chamber music from Vienna across the centuries.

Planning is also underway for a Westport Festival of Chamber Music, with concerts spread between Westport House and Holy Trinity Church. Violinist Catherine Leonard, pianist Hugh Tinney and promoter Madeleine Flanagan are hoping to be up and running on September 6th to 8th. Details from 091-799258.

There is also a World Choral Fest announced for Dublin that’s to run from July 22nd to July 28th. The press release puts it well: “It seems like such a simple idea. Bring together a group of talented, young singers from around the world. They meet in a beautiful European city. They work with a world-class director, conductor, composer and lyricist to prepare for a final concert in a spectacular performance hall. It’s eight days of singing, performing, sight-seeing, learning, laughing and bonding. Bringing the world together in song.”

There are promises of concerts in Christ Church Cathedral and St Patrick’s Cathedral, with the climax at the National Concert Hall. See worldchoralfest.com.

It’s a fearlesscomposer who takes on explicit comparison with a major masterwork of the past. There’s the case of Brahms, who worried about the shadow of Beethoven when he came to write his own First Symphony. There’s a swathe of composers who seem to fret at the burden of history when they write their first string quartet.

And then there are the brave ones, such as Frederic Rzewski, who took on a commission to write a companion piece to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and in 1975 produced The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a set of 36 variations on the Chilean protest song ¡El Pueblo Unido Jameas Será Vencido!.

In 2005, Russian composer Alexander Raskatov wrote a successor to the string quartet version of the sequence of seven slow movements which make up Haydn’s Seven Last Words. In Ireland, this work has taken on an extraordinary life since Francis Humphrys programmed it at the first West Cork Chamber Music Festival in 1996, when the Parisii Quartet’s performance also featured readings by the late Michael Hartnett from his Mountains fall on us.

Raskatov’s Monk’s Music uses texts by St Silouan the Athonite, setting them for solo bass voice, and following them with meditations for string quartet, only joining voice and instruments briefly at the very end. The music is written in a style that’s easy to describe but hard to pin down. It’s a style that effectively eschews style, or, rather, that feels free to draw on any and every style.

The ambition to rove freely through musical history is one that many composers seem ready to indulge in. Composers of film music do it all the time, and the adoption of old musical clothes has resulted in a wide range of pieces that audiences still love, from Grieg’s Holberg Suite, to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, to Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite (which is getting performances from the Irish Chamber Orchestra this month, in Limerick and Dublin, on Thursday 21st and Saturday 23rd).

Grieg, Stravinsky and Shchedrin give the impression of having a foot in two worlds, the world of their chosen past and the world of their actual present. Raskatov’s work is more like the music of an imagined future, where disparate elements and gestures from musical history have become blended into a new lingua franca. He emulates the meditative, time-stilling quality of Haydn’s music by going back to basics, to a world in which a simple pulsation, a flutter, a slide, a shift from consonance to dissonance, or even a silence can become an all-consuming event.

Monk’s Music was written for Valentin Berlinsky, founding cellist of the great Borodin Quartet (who sadly didn’t live to play it). The music waited eight years before its mesmerising premiere last Friday at St Nicholas Church of Ireland in Dundalk, by Gordon Jones and the Carducci Quartet.

Louth Contemporary Music Society, who promoted the concert, are also recording it for release on CD.

 

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