Conductor: Gábor Takács-Nagy (Manchester Camerata)
Choir artistic director: Jaan-Eik Tulve (Vox Clamantis Choir)
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The 2015 Manchester International Festival has been characterised by a somewhat desperate pursuit of originality. This has generated works of shallow novelty and of high pretension. In such an environment the commissioning of a concert dedicated to a composer purely on the basis of the quality of his work seems almost revolutionary.
Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer whose technique, known as ‘Little Bells’, combines multiple vocals with repetitive melodies. The effect is reflective even meditative. A dramatic comparison would be the works of Samuel Beckett where little happens but to great effect. Pärt’s compositions are performed by the Manchester Camerata and the Vox Clamantis Choir working alone and together.
Vox Clamantis open with the UK premiere of Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima. Dressed in tight black clothing buttoned to the neck the choir makes a striking mournful impression, which is entirely appropriate for the repetitive chant-like melody.
By the time the Manchester Camerata takes the stage the level of anticipation is so great that a stagehand, mistaken for conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy, gets a round of applause rising almost to an ovation when the error is realised. Fratres, performed only by the musicians, is an easy introduction to Pärt’s technique. A gentle percussive’ knock, knock’ signals the point at which the slight variation in melody occurs. The opening is tremendously restrained initially limited to barely audible violins and even when the bass instruments join they are restricted to a drone. Pärt’s work is spiritual and Christian but it is hard to shake the feeling of a Pagan aspect to the cyclical music reflecting the rise and setting of the sun or the change of seasons.
Stabat Mater could be described as Pärt’s greatest hit. The orchestra and choir work together in this commemoration of the Virgin Mary’s suffering on witnessing the death of her son. The low mournful sound of the music is abruptly joined by a high keening vocal lament. It is a tormented work with the Manchester Camerata becoming increasingly tempestuous. This is in contrast with the humble plea for peace Da Pacem Dominein which the vocals are lower and more pacifying.
Sopranos are not known for gentle vocals so the appearance of Polina Pasztirsak signals a distinct change of mood. Como cierva Sedientais not typical of the rest of the concert. The strings are joined by brass, wind and percussion instruments to widen the range of the orchestra and the rumbling timpani alone brings a more ominous tone. The music is wild; almost discordant. The tune seems tentative – edging forward and then retreating before rushing around all the instruments only to end in a timid ‘tink’. It is a startling change of pace upon which to end the concert.
Arvo Pärt joins the performers on stage for an ovation that goes on so long he has to signal to bring it to a close leaving the impression that, for tonight at least, the Manchester International Festival has hit the target.