All is not lost

Cristóbal de Morales plainsong Parce mihi, Domine from his Officium defunctorum provides the opening for young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds' Passion and Resurrection and the unfolding story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection is told using texts drawn from the Holy Scriptures and the liturgies of the Catholic and Byzantine churches. I was at Friday night's Norwich performance of Passion and Resurrection by the Britten Sinfonia, Polyphony and soprano Carolyn Sampson conducted by Stephen Layton, every one of them musicans at the top of their game. Rarely before have I sat in a concert hall and heard a new work that sounded so fresh yet so familiar. Passion and Resurrection is familiar not because it is derivate, in fact far from it - Ēriks Ešenvalds teachers include Michael Finnissy and Jonathan Harvey. It is familiar because it sounds so right. Music written from the heart as opposed to written to catch the prevailing wind of stylistic fashion will always sound right. And Ēriks Ešenvalds writes from the heart.

Back in 2006 I asked the question what exactly is a classic? Paths converge here as my question was prompted by Arvo Pärt's Passio, which tells the Passion story from St John's Gospel. Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten was the opening work for the Norwich concert, and in a typically nuanced Britten Sinfonia programme J.S. Bach, the greatest Passion setter of them all, was the third composer of the evening. It is a telling measure of Ēriks Ešenvalds' music that it sat so comfortably alongside that of Arvo Pärt and J.S. Bach. In my post on Arvo Pärt's Passio I suggested that a classic composition is one that receives regular performances. By that criteria, or by any other, Ēriks Ešenvalds Passion and Resurrection is surely set to become a classic, a position Hyperion's forthcoming CD release of the work should consolidate.

Reader David Cavlovic added a comment to my recent post about BBC Radio 3 introducing classical charts which said "It’s the decline of the West as we know it". David may have had his tongue in his cheek when he posted that comment but I know exactly what he means. Turn on the radio or television, pick up a newspaper, look at the release schedules of the major labels or encounter the serial between the movements clapper we had to endure in Friday's concert and it is difficult not to conclude that we are indeed entering a cultural Dark Age.

In this new Dark Age marketing alchemists are hell bent on turning all challenging art into accessible entertainment and in the process destroying the very thing they are claiming to protect. But in the Dark Ages the monastic orders protected the flame of Western civilisation so that it could blaze again in the Enlightenment. And today the committed few such as Ēriks Ešenvalds, Stephen Layton and Polyphony, the Britten Sinfonia and Hyperion are keeping challenging art alive so that it can blaze once again in more propitious times. All is not lost.

Parce mihi Domine, nihil enim sunt dies mei
Quid est homo, quia magnificas eum?

Spare me, O Lord, for my days are nothing
What is a man that thou shouldst magnify him?

* If you have not already made the connection between my two images and Cristóbal de Morales' Parce mihi Domine I will give you a few more lines to come up with the answer. For a 'straight' take on the plainsong turn to John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir's Pilgrimage to Santiago CD. But Parce mihi Domine will be familiar to many readers from the opening track of ECM's Officium CD where the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble are joined by Jan Garbarek's saxophone. My header image is Roberto Masotti's photo from the cover of the ECM CD while the second photo is by Jim Bengston from the same album.

* The question as to whether Officium is challenging art or accessible entertainment had an outing here some years ago. In my book Manfred Eicher's experiment in Renaissance fusion is a classic because it has stood the test of time.

* I was going to ask Ēriks Ešenvalds in our pre-concert talk if he knew Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble's take on Morales, but I decided against it in case he did not know the recording. I need not have worried: after the talk, which Ēriks handled like a 33 year old pro, I mentioned the ECM disc and he knew it well. And talking of the Roman rite it is confession time. Parce mihi Domine at the start of Passion and Resurrection did sound strange without the saxophone. Listen to my talk with Ēriks Ešenvalds here.

* More on Ēriks Ešenvalds' Passion and Resurrection here.

* Is another criteria of a 'classic' music that is pirated?

I received two free tickets for the Britten Sinfonia and Polyphony's Friday concert in return for presenting the pre-concert talk. All CDs mentioned in this post were bought at retail. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


and available here, though I doubt the biographical dating is quite accurate.
Unknown said…
Dear Pliable,

talking of Latvia and music, do not forget that Latvia is also known as "The Land that Sings", having a huge and magnificent tradition of popular choral songs that are sung, transmitted and cherished generation after generation.

There is also this incredible festival, with a choir of at least 10000 people singing through the night, in the middle of summer. Listen to "the Castle of Light"

Which brings me to a question: are you really sure that people clapping their hands between movements are one of the signs of western decline?

Have you ever felt that the ban on clapping is completely unnatural - and even goes against the spirit of the music?
Pliable said…
Giovanni, let me explain what happened at Friday's concert.

Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten was not allowed to fade into silence. It was drowned by an outburst of applause that was more appropriate to Norwich City football team scoring one of its very rare goals. A more apposite example of going against the spirit of the music is difficult to imagine - the title of the work says it all.

Similarly the serial applauder at the back of the hall decided to make his presence felt between the movements of the Bach double concerto. Again his intrusive contribution after the Largo was totally against the spirit of that sublime music.

I was bracing myself for the stamping of feet after Parce mihi, Domine but thankfully there was silence.

This kind of behaviour has nothing to do with the spirit of the music. It was the work of someone who clearly craves attention, and for that we must sympathise with them. But I wish they would not seek attention during one of Bach's masterpieces.
Unknown said…
Dear Pliable,

I now understand much better the spirit of your post!

However, let me ask you one more thing: why should one always assume that clappers are slightly deranged individuals in search of attention, and not people that simply like the music and are not used to the concert-goers etiquette?

By the way, this etiquette is just a social thing, so it will probably change over the years, and maybe because of more and more clappers being involved into classical music.

(I personally find much more annoying the between-movements explosion of nervous coughs (and the ever-present blinding light))

(And, of course, thank you for this great blog: I discovered so many things thanks to your writing (Nielsen on Brilliant, Barbirolli's Gerontius, Rubbra's quartets...))
Pliable said…
Giovanni, you are quite right. Abstaining from intrusive applause is simply part of the concert-goers etiquette.

As is refraining from other activities which detract from the enjoyement of your fellow concert-goers, such as talking during the performance, reading the newspaper, making cell phone calls and breaking wind.

And yes, this etiquette may well change over the years.

In which case concert-going will certainly become interesting.
Pliable said…
Email received:

“Rarely before have I sat in a concert hall and heard a new work that sounded so fresh yet so familiar. Passion and Resurrection is familiar not because it is derivate, in fact far from it…It is familiar because it sounds so right. Music written from the heart as opposed to written to catch the prevailing wind of stylistic fashion will always sound right.”

That’s why Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 sounds like it has always been there. And that must have also been the case during the premiere of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder, or any of the other towering masterpieces of the past (and present).


David Cavlovic
Rick DeLano said…
Just listened to this wonderful piece on KUSC in Los Angeles.

Stunning and beautiful.

Is it possible that music is returning to the world?

It has been so long since there were composers....

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