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Monday, 19 May 2014

An edited review of Dennis Russell Davies conducting Pärt, Glass and Adams in Cambridge

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19 May




At full strength, Basel Symphony Orchestra has fifty string-players. Cambridge Corn Exchange has had many a huge orchestra occupy its stage, but it has probably never before entertained a programme comprising works such as those by Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and John Adams in its regular concert series, as it did on Sunday 27 April – and rarely under a conductor as distinguished in his field as Dennis Russell Davies.

Whatever the three composers featured may have in common (Pärt, at least, rejects the popular description of minimalism), there is assuredly more that makes each one distinctive, as this review hopes to show.



Arvo Pärt – These Words…

This short piece was composed at the end of the last decade, and apparently (according to the publishers) uses material from a Slavonic Prayer, as well as alluding to Hamlet. The reference is not made explicit, but, just before the scene with the play performed by the theatrical troupe, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius says to him I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet. These words are not mine. (Act 3, Scene 2).

With the connivance of the leader of the players, Hamlet had interpolated the text with material designed to bring out guilty behaviour in Claudius. Yet afterwards, when Hamlet confronts his mother Gertrude, she says O, speak to me no more! These words like daggers enter in my ears. No more, sweet Hamlet. (Act 3, Scene 4).

All of these works employ percussion in a persuasive way. In These Words…, it is triangle, xylophone (marimba ?), cymbals, drums, and bell-sounds (not obviously tubular-bells), and, with them, strings. After a beginning filled with suspense, Pärt sets out his thematic material in the percussion instruments, and then introduces the bell-notes, with a descending interval between them.

With, at times, an oriental feel to the writing, he moves between plucked and bowed strings, evoking a sense of eeriness in the ensemble, and returning to the contrasting bell-notes, letting the second one sing – and then a pause / silence in which it lingers as part of the music. So is a fade to almost nothing, after which, in the spirit of Pierre Boulez, he puts the xylophone / marimba into the texture, not as an interjection, but an inner statement.

We seem to be tracing a very slow, but clear, life-sign, with the music conforming to its own measure. The strings swell, then diminish – momentarily (no more than a bar or two), the material has a different rhythm, then it ends, again with the sound of the bell. An excellent choice to open the concert !


Here, it is essential that the gesture of sounding a bell is germane and has poise : Davies so works with orchestras that the atmosphere that Pärt is seeking is wholly present. Likewise, a large group of strings bows together, yet playing piano, with the density of the texture, but not the immediacy of the sound.



Philip Glass – Cello Concerto No. 2 (‘Naqoyqatsi’)

Four times, Philip Glass has worked with director Godfrey Reggio on a film (the latest being Visitors (2013)), and turned the score for the previous film, Naqoyqatsi (2002) into his seven-movement Cello Concerto No. 2, thus subtitled.

Davies has recorded the work with the same soloist, Matt Haimovitz, but conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Its movements all have titles, which may be those of cues from the film’s score, but they are not always self explanatory.

The concert performance had a moment of additional drama in that, at around the end of the sixth movement, one of Haimovitz’s strings – under a lot of pressure – broke. With aplomb and a string from a fellow cellist to hand, he effected the repair there and then in front of us, whilst Davies stood guard over the mood of the piece…

As mentioned, percussion is important in these pieces, but Glass also writes for tam-tam, struck cymbals, wood-blocks, and snare-drum : as the percussionists were at the back, and largely standing, one had a perfect view of what they were adding to the sound, and how carefully. In addition, the concerto is scored for harp, bassoon, horns, and other brass.


1. Naqoyqatsi
Strings and ‘parping’ horns open the work, before the soloist enters with intense drums and cymbals, and weighty cellos / double-basses. Straightaway, Haimovitz demonstrated a lovely sound with the ensemble, his part encompassing a variety of moods, including yearning.

A feature is the shifting tonality, and a tutti section features tubular-bell, and thrilling modulations. Later, cellos alone, then with basses, bring what is almost a trademark of Glass’ music : with, for want of a better term, circle-sounds, he does not literally inscribe a circle with complementary pairs of descending triplets, but it feels like it. He ends the movement with low-register cellos, joined by basses, brass, and percussion.


2. Massman
The second movement had Haimovitz playing sharpened notes, a tremolo effect, and even, later, quarter-tones. The orchestra interjects tutti, but overall that it feels a little like a trudge. Glass then writes high for the cello, and, with percussion giving an oom-pah effect, he momentarily seems to parody Shokstakovich’s own ‘ironic’ parodies. High-energy tutti, rich in brass, herald ‘circle-sounds’ again – now with a slightly sickening feel to the solo part. Before Haimovitz ended, at the bottom of his register, we had a fleeting evocation of Viennese style.


3 – 5. New World / Intensive Times / Old World

Taking these movements together, as they feel linked, we find (3) that tam-tam beats lead to suggestive solo-writing, resembling a gypsy fiddler. Now resembling a solo cello with an orchestra behind him, Haimowitz evoked not only tuning the instrument and the Bach solo cello Suites, but also harmonics, slide-notes, and ghostly tremolos by the cello’s bridge. Next (4), prominent tutti passages, featuring wood-blocks and snare-drum, which leads to haunting brass-writing in its ‘peachy’ register, accompanied by struck cymbals.

The movement develops to vary between driving inevitability and harmonic uncertainty, but bedding down before the end. Finally, (5), as with New World, another opening with the soloist - high, aetherial lines, followed by harp chiming in with an emerging phrase by sounding a descending interval. Generally, the movement feels similar to New World, but instead exploiting a rising interval.


6. Point Blank
A bouncy, but sinister, theme opens the movement, coarsened by a rasp from the brass. Yet it develops by seeming to pitch a descending minor third against a rising major third (?) from the soloist, with lurking snare-drum rhythms. After tutti sections, Haimowitz had writing that demanded intense slurring and sawing. Adamsian ‘Circle-sounds’ follow, but are undercut by descending, sneering brass and strings. Though the cello reaches out, it simultaneously feels constrained by brass and percussion, and ends meditating on one note.


7. The Vivid Unknown (when the broken string was being replaced, described by Davies as ‘the epilogue’)
The movement opens with a very expansive theme for solo cello, which, whilst it generally strives upwards, moves downwards. Cellos and basses contribute ‘circle-sounds’ as the cello has a vivid outpouring, only brought back to earth by the violins’ purity. The bassoon, there in the general texture, makes a weighty contribution, which gives way to more solo material. The bassoons then contributed, with a rising interval (a third ?), and, on beats from the tam-tam – in conjunction, with the other percussion ¬– the concerto came to an end.


The concerto’s origins may mean that the movements are necessarily more delineated than, say, in the work by John Adams after the interval : several began with the soloist introducing thematic material, or of a different character. Haimowitch gave a highly engaged performance. He had hesitated about premiering the work, but Glass had assured him that repeated matter could be varied according to context and his judgement.

All in all, with Pärt and Glass, a good first half, and one that introduced a post-modern approach to compositions that explore the dimensions of a small chosen realm in depth, but without much of the vividly atonal or even twelve-tone approaches that many composers of the last forty or fifty years have embraced.




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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