Claude Vivier ought to be a modern classic. Why isn't he?

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

I Fagiolini: Re-Wilding The Waste Land

St Martin-in-the-Fields

The Music and Life of Claude Vivier

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ensemble 360

Crucible Studio Theatre

April is the cruellest month, but May is shaping up quite pleasantly and the daylight streamed in through the east window of St Martin-in-the-Fields at the start of I Fagiolini’s latest concept-concert, Re-Wilding The Waste Land. The centenary of Eliot’s poem is the obvious hook. But whether you’re counting from the Rite of Spring riot in 1913, Schoenberg’s Skandalkonzert the same year, or further back to Strauss’s Salome or Debussy’s Faune, music’s modernist moment occurred some time earlier. Which is helpful, in a way, because it freed the group’s director Robert Hollingworth from the limitations of chronological programming and gave him scope to do something a bit more interesting, and possibly a bit more Eliot-esque.

So the programme – all of it for an a capella line-up of seven or fewer singers – had one foot in the 16th century and another in the 21st, with a couple of brief nods to the 20th. Vaughan Williams’s Silence and Music sounded like sirens in the mist, and Kenneth Leighton’s God’s Grandeur brushed Gerard Manley Hopkins into the mix to play off Eliot’s own contrapuntal chorus of allusions and verbal registers. Tamsin Greig read, or, to put it more accurately, performed passages of The Waste Land between the musical numbers (she do the police in different voices), and we were asked not to applaud until the very end. The idea of creating a seamless 70-minute meditation on the poem’s themes worked well in the atmosphere of the slowly darkening church, and would have worked better if Hollingworth hadn’t intervened with donnish, well-intentioned introductions to the individual sections.

But the central concept was strong, using Eliot as the pivot point between the sombre ecstasies of Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories and a series of new commissions by Joanna Marsh (bright, sometimes skittish settings of Pattiann Rogers and John F. Deane), Shruthi Rajasekar (perfumed tone-painting, complete with vocal tabla effects) and – most effective of all – Ben Rowarth, whose sonorous choral gestures, sputtered vocalisations and decaying microtonal harmonies exuded an eerie, very Waste Land-ish bioluminescence. Coming after Victoria, a Byrd psalm-setting rang and chimed (I Fagiolini’s men can bite without aggression, just as the female voices glow without any loss of clarity). Both Greig and the singers placed their phrases plainly, but unerringly, into the silence, while the sounds of Charing Cross anno 2022 – police cars, buses, bursts of pop music – buzzed very faintly through leaded glass. These fragments I have shored against my ruins; anyway, you get the picture.

Across the Thames, the London Sinfonietta presented a short but imaginative celebration of Claude Vivier, the Canadian composer who – as Paul Griffiths explained in the programme – was found dead in his Paris apartment in 1983 with 45 knife wounds in his body. Griffith’s extensive biographical essay (he’s one of the few current writers who treats programme notes as art) was typical of the care that the Sinfonietta had lavished on this brief concert, which played to a two-thirds full Queen Elizabeth Hall, and whose one misjudgment was the première of The Seeds of Solitude by Nicole Lizée, a brilliantly scored commission that never really transcended its role as soundtrack to a triptych of whimsical short films.

Well, heaven knows we need more composers with a sense of humour. It just felt like the wrong moment to pull focus from Vivier, whose music sprang to life with all the immediacy of what was clearly an outsize artistic personality. Lonely Child combines the surface simplicity of Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me tell you with the inner fury of George Crumb, and Claire Booth sang with an artlessness that suggested anything but innocence. Zipangu is a strapping, juicy-crunchy workout in post-Penderecki string sonority that should really, by now, be popping up on movie soundtracks and in the programmes of ambitious youth orchestras. Ilan Volkov, conducting, eats scores of this complexity for brunch: Vivier ought to be a modern classic and nothing I saw or heard at the Southbank got me any closer to understanding why he isn’t.

For a booster shot of cultural optimism there’s always Sheffield, where the resident Ensemble 360 launched its first post-plague Chamber Music Festival in the bearpit-like Crucible Studio. With the audience on all sides, the musicians have no choice but to be upfront. Kathy Gowers (violin) and Rachel Roberts (viola) made Martinu’s fiendish Three Madrigals sound like the most fun two string players could have together, before the whole ensemble coalesced around pianist Tim Horton for a performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet that felt like one big smile. And packed all around, silently urging them on, was an audience whose youth and diversity outstripped the most fevered imaginings of an Arts Council equality commissar. Elgar said it first, and he wasn’t entirely joking: ‘The living centre of music in Great Britain is not London, but somewhere further north.’

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