Listening for Part 2 – Voices Together

  • Julian Anderson’s “Harmony” – BBC Proms, 2013 Season, First Night of the Proms, performed by BBC Symphony orchestra and BBC Chorus

Based upon Richard Jeffries autobiographical work “The Story of My Heart”, Anderson aims to make time stand still with his piece “Harmony”.

It opens with very hushed tremolo strings, which sets an eerie tone.  The sopranos enter high in their register to the words “I could not enter time if I wished”, the altos following shortly in polyphonic style to the same words.  The harmonies blur and it is difficult to place not only the tonality but also the key, too.  Tenors enter shortly afterwards singing the text “It is eternity now”.  A brief clarinet motif punctuates the texture, not in unison with the chorus but in stark contrast.  Anderson completes the chorus with the basses; now we hear the chorus in full.  He moves them through the text mainly in polyphonic fashion, but occasionally homophonic sections.  All harmonies remain difficult to listen to, strained; as though suggesting pain.  Diminished; chromatic.  Rhythm is varied throughout.  Anderson switches between smooth steady timing to dotted, almost frantic rhythm that carries much energy, but only in short bursts.  The text setting throughout is syllabic; I could not detect any melisma.

The accompaniment throughout feels distorted, constricted, again suggesting pain.  Whilst it undoubtedly supports the singers, it feels autonomous; sometimes in conflict.  Mid-way through, Anderson suggests a storm, with rolling kettle drums, rain stick and tremolo strings once more.  And after the storm, the mood settles resolutely to the piece’s close with the words “Haste not, be at rest.  This is now eternity.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of the piece.  It was an interesting composition but something completely different to what I enjoy.  It was too atonal and harmonically strained for me to relax whilst listening to it.  It was very clever and Anderson is clearly talented, but this would not be something I would actively pay to go and see being performed.

  • Verdi’s setting of “Ave Maria” – BBC Proms, 2013 Season, Proms on Four performed by Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Chorus, soloist Maria Agresta

This opened with a very gentle orchestration, strings section only.  It had the feel of a quartet about it but played by a larger grouping of strings.

The soloist sings the opening phrase which is all sung predominantly on the same note.  The melody line is scalic and soaring.  It is sorrowful and explores a wide range of the soloist’s capabilities.

The melody at times moves more chromatically but it never jumps erratically.

Verdi keeps the soprano in the lower parts of it’s range.  There are some beautiful, hauntingly executed high notes that are technically difficult for the singer given that the dynamics are so quiet.  A lovely piece.

  • “Libera Me” by Verdi – BBC Proms, 2013 Season, Proms on Four performed by Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Chorus, soloist Maria Agresta

A strong and powerful solo soprano entrance in Italian.  The chorus intersperses very gently, contrasting with bold and frightening statements by the soprano.  A full orchestral accompaniment carries the voices throughout except for a short section 3/4 way through.

To the text “I quake and tremble”, Verdi writes a descending chromatic melodic motive.  Even the voice seems to tremble.  One of the highest notes I could detect accompanied the words “Heavens and earth”.

The soloist and chorus sing completely together with the words “day of wrath”; this is very dramatic and powerful, and Verdi brings the brass and timpani in when the words “day of calamity” – this reminded me of a storm it was so powerful.

With an almost bi-polar change, the words “Grant them eternal rest, Lord” follows the chorus bass parts singing a descending chromatic line.  With these words an extremely high soprano entry which I found exceptionally moving.  There was again incredible control with this singing and the fact that Verdi makes this section a cappella adds more emphasis to the haunting singing.

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