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Aldeburgh Festival (2) A Brian Ferneyhough Portrait:
Irvine Arditti (violin), Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, James Weeks (director), Orford Church, Orford, Suffolk, 10.6.06 (AO)

Churches make good performing space because they’re designed for audiences. But their original purpose can enhance the listening experience further, linking what’s happening on stage with more ancient meanings. One of my most profound experiences was hearing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings in Blytheburgh church. Bostridge sang of death, surrounded by tombs of long forgotten peopl and the Dirge, with its Old English syntax never sounded so right. On the pews were carvings of long gone parishioners, forever shown in prayer. Outside, the wind blew over the reeds and river, just as it had done for eternity, and will when we, too, are dust. It was intensely emotional and spiritual, linking present, past and future.

Ferneyhough’s music may be strikingly original and innovative, but he draws from the deep sources of human experience that early music represents. Unaccompanied voice is one of the purest forms of music; the connection between singers and liturgy is simple and direct. The experience is transformational: for a few moments, the singers are part of a universal communion. Using only voice, Ockgehem and Obrecht created elaborate textures of sound, voices interweaving together and in counterpoint, creating highly sophisticated patterns of colour and tone. Like the traceries on vaulted ceilings in great cathedrals, they show that medieval artists could think in almost abstract terms to express complex concepts. Even by the standards of their time, Obrecht and Ockgehem were cutting edge. They were the “New Complexity” of the fifteenth century.

Ferneyhough’s Unsichtbare Farben for solo violin (1997/9) (“invisible colours”) is a direct meditation on the Agnus Dei from Ockgehem’s Missa Caput. Irvine Arditti gets his instrument to “sing” like a voice, then reverts back to the more modern dissonances. The deceptively simple line winds right across the scale, then wends its way back again. Just as it seems to scale downwards, a new ghostly figure emerges. The music hovers on the brink of dissolution, yet keeps reasserting itself with new vigour. The Spartan clarity of Ockgehem’s Alma redemptoris mater with its gruelling parts for tenor seemed to lead naturally to Ferneyhough’s fairly well known Intermedio alla ciaconna (1986). Its high pitched single chords have a strangely lucid vivacity, reminding me of wild birds, darting freely and unpredictably in different directions. The references to chaconne-like notes in the beginning are gradually transformed into long held chords in almost impossibly high pitch in the end, as if progressing from “indoor” containment to completely liberated transparency and freedom. We have moved from the cloister into a realm of the spirit.

Early music helped its participants intuit the world beyond, through the vocabulary of liturgy. Perhaps for similar reasons, religious music has long been a springboard for composers whether or not they believe in its tenets. Maybe it’s the mystery of spirituality, or perhaps the idea of using a formal architecture of a mass or requiem on which to hang other ideas? Ferneyhough said of his Missa Brevis (1969) that the text of the Mass was a “verbal substructure ….sufficiently certain of its own identity to act as a firm counter-foil to the distortions (which) the purely musical material demanded”. The grammar of faith serves a new purpose in an age of uncertainty.

Three groups of voices are used, sometimes singing in conventional SATB format, but more often blending not with their own group but with voices from the others. The text breaks up into individual words, or sounds, or snatches of a phrase, thrown from one group to another. Cross currents and counterflows create a densely textured polyphony. At various points the voices join, as in the Hosanna, then spiral off again. This is chamber music for instruments with almost infinite possibilities, each voice with its own characteristic timbre and tone. At a stroke, Ferneyhough is acknowledging music with an ancient tradition, while creating something beyond its frontiers.

It goes without saying that the performances were superb. Music like this needs competent musicians, who can keep clarity within an intricate ensemble. Arditti, for whom both the violin works were written, made the virtuoso scoring fluid and free. Precision playing like this, infused with deep musical sensitivity is inherently exciting. For an hour or so, I felt as if I was experiencing a minor miracle.

Anne Ozorio


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)