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Qudduson - Sacred Songs of East and West: The Clerks with George Qas-Barsoum, Merit Ariane Stephanos (voice), Abdul Salam Kheir (voice, oud), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 29.10.209 (GPu)

For their project Qudduson, the six voices of that splendid ensemble The Clerks were joined by three vocalists from Syria in the presentation of an imaginatively designed and beautifully performed programme which made for a glorious evening of (mostly) unaccompanied vocal music. There was much that set the spine tingling (and I was often reminded of Housman’s words about poetry being that which makes the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up); there was much that was moving, not least because it gave musical embodiment to some profound cultural truths in a manner that was both thoroughly serious and wholly accessible.

The performance took the form of five uninterrupted sequences of music. The first, ‘Quddus’ (the word means ‘most holy’), incorporated the Sanctus from Pierre de la Rue’s Missa pro defunctis and a powerful recital by Abdul Salam Kheir of one of the Beautiful Names Of God, his voice resonant in the large (and sadly largely empty) spaces of St. David’s Hall. This first sequence closed with chants from the Syriac Church (sung with grace and subtlety of inflexion by George Qas-Barsoum) and the Coptic Church (performed the marvellously expressive Merit Ariane Stephanos).

In this first sequence the polyphonic textures of the western music stood out in sharp distinction from the monophonic music of the Syrian traditions. But having, as it were, shown us the palette with which he was working, Edward Wickham went on to mix the vocal and musical colours rather more radically.

In the second - and in the later - sequences, the voices were stitched together more and more thoroughly, the musical traditions allowed to interact rather than merely exist side by side. In the sequence ‘For Holy Week’ we had the austere beauty of the Passion Narrative from the chant of Toledo, music from the Mozarabic tradition, alongside and simultaneously with some ravishingly rich Syriac chants for Holy Week. Added to the dialogue were passages from the Lamentations of Johannes de Quadris and Venantius Fortunatus’ hymn Vexilla Regis in Gregorian mode, as well as in versions by de la Rue and Palestrina. By now the music of one tradition appeared to emerge almost seamlessly from that of another. Even traditions not so explicitly evoked seemed to be present somehow - more than a few of the Syriac chants performed by George Qas-Barsoum had audible affinities with some of the music of Sufi brotherhoods.

Sequence three, entitled ‘Alleluia’, presented two alleluias from the Syriac tradition, either side of Robert Saxton’s ‘Ecce Dominus veniet’, receiving what was announced as only its second public performance. Characteristic of Saxton’s work it is intelligently responsive to details of text and, heard in this particular context, it beautifully sustained and developed the sober dignity of the Syriac allelulia sung by Qas-Barsoum. Then, as the female voices of The Clerks joined those of their male colleagues, a more outspoken joy emerged. This was a darkly radiant piece of considerable beauty. It led very aptly into the second of the Syriac alleluias, with the voice of Merit Ariane Stephanos at the forefront of a setting less complex than the one sung by Qas-Barsoum, this being a traditional version in which we heard all nine voices in unpretentious music full of faith and bliss.

After the interval the fourth sequence, ‘A Lament for the Children of Gaza’, involved the interweaving (with frequent passages of superimposition and overlay) of Vox in Rama, both in the mode of Ambrosian chant and in a fascinating setting by Giaches de Wert (The Clerks were at their outstanding best here) and an improvisation by Abdul Salam Kheir on an anonymous contemporary poetic text (A Lament for Gaza) and a lullaby sung with lilting beauty by Stephanos. The sequence closed with the greater formality of Qas-Barsoum’s performance of a powerful Syriac Hymn for the Holy Martyrs.

It was in this fourth sequence that the political (and moral) dimensions of the project was made explicit, but such a sense was there in every aspect of the evening’s music. It was in the relevance of this musical ‘conversation’ to the failed ‘conversations’ of the political world, that some of its power resided. As the ‘Eastern’ voices were heard above a drone provided by the ‘Western’ voices of The Clerks the listener had reasons both for regret and for hope.

The final sequence of the programme was largely devoted traditional Arabic songs from the secular tradition. It was introduced however, in of the evening’s many highlights, by Abdul Salam Kheir’s performance (accompanying himself on the oud) of a setting of an extraordinary poem by Ibn Al-’Arabi from his Tarjumān al-Ashwāq (The Interpreter of Desires). Born in Murcia (not far inland from Alicante) in 1240, Ibn Al-’Arabi became one of the greatest of Islamic mystics and philosophers, studying and working in Seville, Egypt, and Baghad, before settling in Damascus (where he died). By coincidence I was in Murcia very recently, where I was fortunate enough to see a splendid installation Zahra (Flower) by the Moroccan artist Younès Rahmoun in the Veronicas Gallery (a former church), based on the imagery of Ibn Al-’Arabi - that installation and Abdul Salam Kheir’s performance would have complemented one another perfectly!

Ibn Al-’Arabi’s poem, as Wickham himself said from the stage, might have stood as a poetic statement of the philosophy underlying this Qudduson project. It is worth quoting the poem, in a 1950 translation by Margaret Smith (in her Readings from the Mystics of Islam):

Within my heart, all forms may find a place,
The cloisters of the monk, the idol’s fane,
A pasture for gazelles, the Sacred House
Of God, to which all Muslims turn their face:
The tables of the Jewish Law, the Word
Of God, revealed unto His Prophet true.
Love is the faith I hold, and wherso’er
His camels turn, the one true faith is there.

“Love is the faith I hold” (or, as some translators have it, “I follow the religion of Love”) - Love stands behind a variety of mere “forms” in the poet’s eyes. Love stands above and beyond the multiplicity of “forms” which Christianity, Judaism and Islam present and represent. Qudduson, analogously, penetrated to, and articulated, a common musical ‘faith’ revealed as underlying the diversity (both real and illusory) of the musical traditions so skilfully drawn on.

There followed celebrations of love more earthly, more sexual. In some flirtatious love duets, sung by Abdul Salam Kheir and Merit Ariane Stephanos the latter, having earlier sung with spiritual fervour now produced a delightful, playfully sexy manner. After the bawdy motet ‘Clap-Clap’ sung by The Clerks and a beautiful four-part performance of Dowland’s ‘Stay Time Awhile’, the programme closed with another piece bringing together all the voices on stage, ‘Ya ghusna naza’. By now it was an additional delight, beyond that of the music itself, to see how much the performers were enjoying the collaboration, how much they evidently enjoyed one another’s work - that, too, spoke of the meaning and importance of a project such as this.

Called back for an encore (though the audience may not have been numerous it loved what it heard) we were treated to a reprise of that traditional Syriac allelulia which had closed the first part of the programme, fittingly bringing all the voices together again to close the evening.

My only frustration was that there were times when I would have liked a fuller knowledge of some of the texts being sung. That is a flaw that could easily be corrected in a recording. I very much hope that a version of Qudduson will be committed to CD - I’ll put my name down for several copies right now!

Glyn Pursglove 

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