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Aldeburgh Festival 2008  (6) : Rihm, Byrd, Xenakis,  Rohan de Saram (cello) Exaudi, James Week (director), Aldeburgh Church, Suffolk, England. 20.6.2008 (AO)

Rohan Playing X 5 © Denis Brown

“Dulce periculum est” (danger is sweet), ends the ode from Horace set by Wolfgang  Rihm, Quo me rapis.  The poet is going where “nothing is slight, mundane or mortal”, yet relishes the unknown. It’s a metaphor for art. Rihm’s music is never going to be popular, but he’ has creative integrity.  Quo me rapis is like no choral music we’re used to, but it’s a statement of faith, as powerful as any religious anthem.  Exaudi does Rihm’s music justice.  Starting with fragile half-tones they exhale and whisper, as if the music was poised on a precipice : it creates a real sense of danger. Then, gradually sharp staccato builds up to a climax where syllables are firmly, violently enunciated. That last “est” leaves no doubt as to their conviction.

Danger, too, infuses the Byrd motets, Ad dominum cum tribularer, and Quomodo cantabimus. They may be more “conventional” baroque ensemble work, but Byrd’s sympathies were with the Catholic minority in late Tudor Britain.   In this sense, “I cry out to God in time of trouble” may be an oblique statement of principle not so far removed from Horace’s declaration of faith.  The dense tracery seems solidly impenetrable but individual voices these are, nonetheless.  “I spake peace”, goes one text, “but they shouted together for war”.  Polypohony is exquisitely beautiful, but Exaudi catches the inner tension beneath the loveliness. Indeed, James Weeks, Exaudi’s Director describes the lesser known O salustris hostia, as “an extraordinary work in which a three part canon is set among three free parts in a bizarrely dissonant texture……..a harmonically subversive exercise”.

Xenakis, a political radical, dedicated Nuits to “unknown political prisoners……the thousands of forgotten whose very names are lost”.  Hence the fragmentation of sound.  He uses broken syllables from Sumerian and ancient Persian texts.  Phonemes express the idea of half-heard “voices”, and of ruthless suppression.  Polyphony creates tumult more powerfully than straightforward word setting. In its own way, Nuits is as concisely aphoristic as a Kurtàg miniature, for the voices here symbolise vast forces, thousand of people silenced over many centuries. Exaudi employs a range of techniques like growls, whistles, the chattering of teeth to expand in sound the idea of fragmented words, each fragments building up a powerful wall of sound.  Some of the wailing vowel sounds are held so long it’s as if Exaudi members were practising circular breathing. This makes the sudden, last syllable sound even more distressing, as it cuts off, strangled, in mid air.

Striking as Exaudi’s performances always are, nothing could compare with Xenakis’ Kottos, for solo cello.  Rohan de Saram is probably its finest exponent ever. I’ve heard him play this several times, but this was truly stunning.  In his quiet, unassuming way he said a few words before starting to explain that Kottos was the son of Gaia, the primordial earth goddess.  The full story is gruesome, pitting father against son in extreme rivalry. The music therefore expresses titanic struggle.  As de Saram says “it’s like Quranos is pushing Kottos back into the womb”. De Saram does amazing things : long, protracted growls of sound scraping at the lowest possible range of the instrument, manically fast microtonal flourishes executed with great precision. Towards the end, de Saram plays conflicting rhythms with such energy that the music seems to levitate on its own dynamism.   Look again at the photograph above, where five images of de Saram are superimposed on one another.  Kottos is polyphony for a single instrument, and comes alive with a genius like de Saram.

See also

Anne Ozorio

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