On 22 February 2011 at 12.51 pm Christchurch, New Zealand was hit by an earthquake. Officially this was an aftershock of another quake the previous September. For various reasons its impact was more devastating for the city and the residents with some 185 people losing their lives, thousands injured and many buildings damaged beyond repair. One of the most iconic images to emerge from the earthquake was of Christchurch Cathedral which lost the spire and much of the tower and is now likely to be demolished completely.
I have had the pleasure of reviewing other discs of music by Anthony Ritchie (Symphonies 1 & 2
~ Symphony 3
). All three
symphonies, as well as the others recorded there, struck me as individual and impressive. Fine though those works are I have to say that they are surpassed by Ritchie's Fourth Symphony presented here. Ritchie is a native of the Christchurch and having spent his early years as a member of the cathedral choir felt the loss particularly closely. Some years earlier the cathedral authorities had commissioned from another Christchurchian - sculptor Llew Summers - a series of 14 artworks representing the traditional "Stations of the Cross" or Via Dolorosa. By the time of their dedication in 2005 there was considerable controversy because the artist chose to represent Christ as naked in some of the stations as well as using a deliberately naive style that was considered inappropriate. As an aside and as no art expert, the images I have seen both online and in the CD booklet strike me as very powerful precisely because of their simplicity and directness and to be offended by nakedness simply out-dated. In turn, the controversy sparked the poet Bernadette Hall to produce a collection of poems entitled "Way of the Cross" which are her meditative reflections on the sculptures.
So it can be seen that there is a quite convoluted path from initial source of inspiration to execution. Ritchie had contemplated a work using these poems before the earthquake but to quote him: "I considered setting the poems to music before the quakes, but felt that some of them were difficult to set.. It was about a year after the main quake in 2011 that I went back to these poems, because of their link with the now ruined cathedral, and it seemed like a good way into the symphony. I had pondered how to respond to the disaster in Christchurch (my home town) for a long time, because I didn't want to be 'using' the situation for my own benefit. I also felt that programmatic music about earthquakes was not the way to go. The story of Christ's death seemed to draw a parallel between his own suffering and that of Christchurch. It allowed me to bring in layers of meaning and mythology that I find interesting."
Ritchie has subtitled his Symphony Stations
. It is scored for Symphony Orchestra and solo soprano and plays in fourteen continuous movements - one for each Summers' artwork. Symphonic works for a single solo voice are rare, but I cannot think of another that shares this work's structure. Of the fourteen sections five are for orchestra alone, three more have the singer singing a single line from the associated poem and just six are what might be termed verse settings. I have been listening to this music over the last month during which time I have found myself increasingly drawn into its profoundly moving sound-world. Without access to a score it is hard to make any accurate musical analysis of the work so I will limit myself to a series of 'impressions' which I hope will give an emotional rather than technical sense of this symphony.
The structure of the work is hugely impressive - the listener is drawn forward inexorably with each station clearly defined yet clearly part of a greater scheme. As a continuous movement lasting over forty minutes this is a compositional tour de force
yet it is the deeply personal and human aspect that resonates most. Ritchie's greatest single triumph is to be both deeply personal in his reaction to his home city's tragic losses yet strikingly universal. This is not
a work 'only' about Christchurch or Ritchie or indeed the Summers sculptures. Perhaps even more importantly, although the iconography is explicitly Christian this is not a specifically religious - let alone Christian - work. The message is one of suffering, transcendence and ultimately a fragile sense of hope.
Although, as mentioned, the work plays continuously there is a sense that it falls into three main sections; Stations 1-6, 7-12 and a Coda/Epilogue of 13 and 14. Musically and emotionally Ritchie is extremely skilled in crafting these three arcs. He uses recurring motifs and musical 'reminiscences' to bond the sections, giving them hugely satisfying moments of release and arrival. One of the central motifs occurs right at the start of the work; a four-note phrase used to symbolise Christ. This emerges out of a clashing diad and lamenting oboe phrase and is sung by the soprano to the words "I am very small". This first Station is in fact one of the longest vocal settings in the entire work. What impresses me especially is the fluid way Ritchie combines the movements. It might almost be considered a physical movement - walking if you like - around an exhibition. The viewer/listener moves onwards to the next work of art with elements from the previous one still resonating in your mind. The inclusion of orchestra-only Stations means that the interpretation is blurred; is Ritchie giving us a vision of the original art work or Hall's poetic reaction? This deliberate breaking down of the work's "meaning" allows the listener to impose their own - again ensuring the combination of personal and universal.
Throughout, Ritchie's musical language is contemporary but essentially tonal. Much as I enjoyed his earlier work I have to say that this has made the greatest impression on me by some degree. He is clearly a prolific composer - this is Op.171 - and my knowledge is limited to the few works available on CD - but of those recorded works this is the one that lingers most tellingly in the memory. In part this is due to the integration of the previously mentioned reminiscences. Ritchie writes; "I sang in Palestrina masses in that cathedral when a student and that experience has stayed with me ever since... the 'Crucifixus' from Palestrina's 'Missa Papae Marcelli' underpins Station 5; phrases are re-composed and interspersed with echoes from the opening of station 4, and the theme of that movement connects with the stations of the cross. The reference in station 12 is the opening part of the first chorus from St John's Passion, again a work I sang in the cathedral when young. I have a few recurring motifs that I hope help to unify the work; e.g. the opening line for the singer outlines 4 notes that represent Christ. Other motifs are purely musical ones".
The introduction of the Palestrina in Station 5 is a piece of pure musical theatre. Ritchie gives it to solo strings, who play it with a introverted crushed simplicity - like a consort of oppressed viols - quite unlike the way it is heard in the Mass. The heading of this Station is "the young men have ceased from this musick". Over the hushed string writing woodwind and glockenspiel flurry like disturbed birds. Gradually, both strings and accompaniment swell and the orchestration thickens and the soprano joins with a wordless vocalise. Again this is an example of Ritchie's skill fusing this into the following Station. He uses a device of a rhythm building from slow to fast on repeated notes that bursts into Station 6 with the full brass unleashed on a version of the Palestrina motif. This collapses back to solo strings almost as soon as it has emerged - any sense of triumph is faltering and brief.
Station 7 is another of the longer verse settings and contains one of Hall's most striking images; "My back curves like a whale breaching" - followed by the hauntingly prescient "... I am folding down like a landslip, like a collapsing building." There is a tangible sense of a body breaking under the burden of the cross. Although Ritchie has scored for a large symphony orchestra - his use of the full ensemble is extremely carefully rationed, and all the more effective for its sparing deployment. So in some ways the orchestra-alone treatment of Station 8 carries over the poetic images from Station 7. From this point through to the cathartic "why have you abandoned me?" of Station 12 there is a strong sense of the music gradually girding itself toward that strikingly desolate cry of despair.
Station 9 is one of the most overtly illustrative sections of the work; "The wood is a hammer that drives me into the ground" is dramatically illustrated by full-orchestra blows that slam into the singer. Soprano Jenny Wollerman is particularly impressive in this movement, spitting out the words with a venomous intensity. More strikingly, Ritchie writes a kind of orchestral fugato/toccata which creates a disturbing aural picture of the executioners going about their bloody business with near-gleeful energy. The emotional climax of the work is reached in Station 12 with the unmistakable appearance of the opening movement of the Bach St. John Passion
. Over the churning strings and plaintive oboes Ritchie lays slabs of brass - an effect which struck me as strangely like seeing a very familiar image through a pane of fractured (stained?) glass. As it happens this was the first major Bach choral work I ever played as a teenager so I suspect it has a similar emotional gravitational pull for me as Ritchie. Again, with a sure theatrical touch, Ritchie has kept the soloist silent except for single lines since Station 10. Here, her cry of "why have you abandoned me?" has an impact that is powerfully humane and profoundly moving.
The transition to the final two stations does not bring easy or superficial release. Instead there is a sense of acceptance and moving on - as the poem says; "the world resumes its busyness". The soprano sings another wordless vocalise and the orchestral texture takes on a gamelan-like bell-tone led simplicity. Indeed Ritchie's use of tuned percussion throughout brings echoes of both gamelan but also quasi-ritualised marking of time and moment. The use of overlapping descending scales allows the textures to build leading to the deeply moving opening of Station 14 "light flickering on the horizon". This starts with a magnificent brass-choir-led statement of the Palestrina which after about 50 seconds suddenly ceases leaving a solo vibraphone flickering before a tentative oboe enters. The soloist sings the single line of the Station's title and the gamelan-style tuned percussion play overlapping ascending scalic figures as the work disappears like the last rays of the setting sun.
I have not been as impressed by a contemporary piece of music since I heard Tommie Haglund's magnificent Hymns to the Night
). Although of very different musical styles both works show that contemporary music can still speak in an intensely personal and deeply moving way. The fact that the source of Ritchie's inspiration lies entombed in the ruined cathedral and might well never be recovered - the current thinking is to demolish the existing ruins and rebuild a completely new church in its place - adds power and poignancy. That aside this is a work for all times and all people. Ritchie's music speaks with a very individual yet accessible voice and his work - and certainly this symphony - deserves a wide audience.
The performance by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra - the members of which one imagines had direct and firsthand experience of the earthquake and its consequences - play with total conviction and no little skill. The use of Wigram Airforce Museum as the concerthall/recording venue implies that the more traditional venues in the city are still not functioning. That being said the recording sounds very good indeed. Producer Wayne Laird and engineer Paul McGlashan handle the multi-layered soundscape extremely effectively with the wide dynamic range well presented. There is a very pleasant acoustic into which the orchestra are believably placed. Jenny Wollerman is given a slight prominence but nothing undue or crude. The orchestra plays with the kind of commitment that comes from being carefully prepared and confident in what they will be getting from the podium - certainly the impressively fluid form of the work is conveyed to maximum effect by conductor Tom Woods. There are no perceptible 'gear-changes' between the many movements and he maintains the work's tension from first to last. This is a recording of a live performance - whether or not the actual premiere is not clear - but the audience are very well-behaved with almost no audible noises and with no applause at the end. Normally the latter would not bother me but for repeated listening this music does need to float off into a void. My only observation that is less than totally enthusiastic is that Wollerman's diction does suffer particularly in the higher register. Fortunately all the sung texts are included in the liner-note but even after repeated listenings some lines remain stubbornly unintelligible by ear alone. She is clearly immersed in the score and what might be sacrificed in terms of shear aural beauty is compensated for by a near-operatic intensity.
I like the black and white simplicity of the liner's presentation which includes photographs of three of the carvings - including on the cover the controversial 'naked' Christ. The note about the work is short to the point of terseness which is a shame. At under 45 minutes playing time this might seem like poor value but to my mind this is an instance where the profound quality of the work renders irrelevant any comments regarding value for money.
A remarkable and deeply moving work that demands international attention and acclaim.