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Tallis, Xenakis, Finnissy: Rohan de Saram (cello), Exaudi, James Weeks (director) Shoreditch Church, London, 18.12.2006 (AO)




The Spitalfields Music Festival is special because itís organised by composers and musicians. Previous directors have included Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove, and this year, Diana Burrell.  Accordingly, this festival is noted for its adventurous programmes, so this   concert was no exception. Thomas Tallisís sixteenth century hymns were performed alongside the works of the twentieth centuryís cutting edge composers. 


The juxtaposition isnít at all surprising to those familiar with modern music.   Nearly a hundred years ago, Vaughan Williams turned to Tallis for ideas, his Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis heralding his break away from the restrictive convention of Stanford, Parry and the Victorian musical establishment.  Itís as if it were a kind of pure Eden before the formalism of classical structure.  Music, like art, or the architecture of ancient cathedrals, served a purpose beyond the worldly.  In the intricate complexities of early music, many modern composers have tapped into an ethos of infinite expressive possibilities.


Itís an interesting development, as Tallis himself wrote at a time of unprecedented religious and social change, recreating in his music a more inventive, liberating version of what went before.  His Gaude gloriosa Dei mater exploits the potential of high treble voices.  Itís wonderful how the high female and low male voices weave around the centre ground, the trebles adding an otherworldly power to the whole. 


Michael Finnissyís Seven Sacred Motets from 1991, also represent new directions arising out of his own earlier work.  By the intense, florid standards of polyphony, itís relatively austere, but in many ways thatís what makes it work.  Itís a deeply thoughtful work, a contemplation on the abiding significance of the Virgin Mary and her continuing place in modern thinking. What an antidote to the tinsel and consumerism that Christmas has become! Shoreditch church is a spartan, crumbling and cold building, once consecrated to a faith in which the Virgin Mary had a marginal place.  Somehow, hearing Finnissyís exploration through music in such surroundings, and at such a time, seemed even more profound than it might be otherwise.  Like Tallis, Finnissy makes the most of the alto and treble voice, using it sometimes to reinforce the female voices, sometimes the tenors.  These high voices wove a frieze over the drone like incantation of the basses.  This music may be based on Christian tradition, but itís also uncompromisingly modern.  At times, I thought I could hear in the soprano and alto parts what sounded like a muezzin calling his faithful to prayer.  Spirituality, to paraphrase Finnissy, is universal. 


Xenakis goes even further.  His Nuits is demanding to listen to, as well as to sing.  `The connection to early music is still tangible, but Xenakis creates an intensely sophisticated polyphony of vocal sounds, far beyond the sounds of conventional ďsingingĒ.  His words are jumbled nonsense words, sound that deliberately tantalise because they link to sounds outside the piece.  The singers click their tongues and make sounds from within their throats, almost like human maracas. A soprano sings a round, circular legato, while other voices emit sharp staccatos, where the gaps between sounds seem to jump out as vividly as the sounds themselves. Everything seems to be in the dynamic of spacing between levels and textures.  There simply is no room for fluffing about in this music.  These days, when cover versions and cheap dubs are more valued than artistic integrity, I shudder for composers like Xenakis, whose music just wonít work unless itís performed with extreme precision.


And so, to perhaps the most stunning piece in the whole evening, Xenakisís Kottos.  Rohan de Saram has been playing this piece since he was a very young man, being involved in some of the first performances.  It is an incredibly powerful piece whose cataclysmic drama belies the fact it is ďmerelyĒ a cello solo.  The instrument seems to explode with the ideas Xenakis works into the piece, stretching it to its technical limits.  From the first bars, dark, harsh sounds seem to burst as if from the bowels of the earth, stridently clashing and confronting each other.  Xenakisís inspiration was the struggle between the Titans and Zeus, so itís not surprising that the piece seems to tear itself apart before recreating itself anew.  Gradually pitches become more defined, the growling dissonances lightened by glissandi and tremolos. De Saram could coax from the cello sounds whose pitch was so high they could hardly be heard by the human ear.

Thereís a long passage in which the extremes are vaguely contained in a sort of wild, ritual dance, but Xenakis doesnít let the piece end in any predictable manner.  De Saram manages to coax the most remarkable sound patterns from his instrument, ending with what sounds almost like an exhalation from a wind instrument. He makes one instrument convey a panorama, breathtakingly whizzing from one vista to another.  Hearing him play is always an experience, for this level of virtuosity and artistry is unique.



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, GŲran 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)