sat 18/05/2024

Six Brandenburgs: Six Commissions, Chamber Domaine, Malling Abbey review - metaphysical brilliance | reviews, news & interviews

Six Brandenburgs: Six Commissions, Chamber Domaine, Malling Abbey review - metaphysical brilliance

Six Brandenburgs: Six Commissions, Chamber Domaine, Malling Abbey review - metaphysical brilliance

Bach binds together six equally compelling new works and some of the UK's top players

The sound of music (in this case new) conducted by Thomas Kemp and happily received by an audience including nuns, children and a dogThomas Bowles

"Contemporary classical", for want of a better term, works best in concert as a cornucopia of shortish new works offering a healthy range of styles and voices. Add to the mix six of the most exhilarating and original chamber concertos ever, by no means casting complementary premieres in the shade, put together some of the UK’s best musicians and make it an afternoon marathon taking place in the round  aatn extraordinary venue, and success should be total.

And it was, on Saturday from noon to 5.30pm, in the exquisite surroundings of Malling Abbey The idea isn't unprecedented: the Swedish Chamber Orchestra initiated the six-Bach-six-new format back in 2015, originating the project in its home town of Örebro, where in a hall with disappointingly plummy acoustics I heard the first two ventures including phenomenal trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger in Steve Mackey's Triceros, and presenting the full results in two Proms three years later. Theartsdesk's Sebastian Scotney found them way too long, and noted that, despite the distinguished roster of composers, some of the new works "seemed to outstay their welcome, with people walking out." Six composers of the Malling Brandenburg experienceThere was never the slightest danger of that happening here; none of the new works (if my sense of time is correct) lasted longer than a quarter of an hour, and - credit Music@Malling's driving force, the violinist Thomas Kemp, conducting all the premieres - each was fascinating in its own right; not just the sheer contrasts but the very different ways of linking to the Brandenburg Concerto in question and its unique set of forces were strong and apparent. Pictured above by Thomas Bowles: five of the six commissioned composers (Daniel Kidane wasn't able to attend): Michael Price, Deborah Pritchard, Joseph Phibbs, Stevie Wishart and Brian Elias.

Brian Elias, an outstanding figure in contemporary music regularly featured in West Malling, may have served up the grittiest work in the most oblique tribute, Sequel, to the First Brandenburg Concerto; the harmonic language more angsty than anything Bach might have envisaged, but the essence of the dance very much intact to hold the interest, and some exquisite writing for individual instruments (especially for the bassoon, so well played by Sarah Burnett before she and the oboists bowed out of the day's proceedings). In pure, diatonic contast came The Malling Diamond by Michael Price, who wrote about composition of the work so lucidly last week on theartsdesk (there is no disparagement at all in mentioning that this engaging musical chameleon, also a fine pianist, is the composer of the very catchy score to the BBC's Sherlock). He had the considerable incentive of writing for the trumpet which plays such a wondrous part in the Second Brandenburg Concerto, bringing it to the high-wire fore in the second of The Malling Diamond's two slower sections. Neil Brough at Malling AbbeyThis was a total hit with the audience. And consummate Neil Brough's handling of the seraphic lines on a valved trumpet in the Bach was almost flute-like, to complement the playing of another consummate soloist, Paul Edmund Davies, of long-term LSO principal fame (the trumpeted pictured above by Thomas Bowles). In fact the way the trumpet scintillated out of the textures had its parallel in the way that the sun came fitfully out from behind the clouds through the performance, casting a stairway reflection on the floor from the upper windows of the extraordinary, austerely beautiful convent church built for the resident nuns by Maguire & Murray in 1966. The building sits comfortably and unostentatiously alongside the substantial Norman remains of the original abbey, founded by Bishop Gundult of Rochester before 1090 - one of the least-known architectural treasures of England.

Two of the new works paid homage to the ecclesiastical setting. Daniel Kidane's compelling Concerto Grosso feeds a chorale between livelier lines (and produced the most original sounds of the day, the twitchings of harpsichord and two recorders against more sustained lines). Stevie Wishart had gone straight to the source and the setting for Gold and Precious Silver, asking the Abbey Choir Mistress for a chant, again elaborated by harpsichord echoes of the birdsong which framed the work against the chant using the strings minus violins which are Bach's basis for a concerto which truly rocked under harpsichordist Steven Devine's direction (pictured below by Thomas Bowles, with double-bassist Leon Bosch). There was special refreshment here, with the work being written to fit between the second and third movements of Brandenburg 6. Steven Devine directing Chamber DomaineWishart's departure from the "sequel" format of the first four works was also reflected in Joseph Phibbs' Bach Shadows, written as prelude to Brandenburg 5 but powerful enough, within its short span, to stand on its own despite the discreet echoes of phrases in the Bach; the third movement brings back an element of angst, but with Janáčekian obsessive intensity, and ends abruptly at just the right point. Most directly indebted to its source, at least to start with, Deborah Pritchard's radiant homage to Brandenburg 3, Illuminations, fully expoited the textural possibilities of the 10 players, in dancing energy that settled to a more sustained luminosity.

There was never a point in any of the three afternoon concerts where you wanted to say "can we get back to Bach, please?" And yet the performances of the original concertos were so utterly compelling that I can only think of describing the outer movement effect as one of metaphysical exhilaration - yes, the soul danced and the body wanted to, but only Bach could transcendentalise the pitch of exuberance in this way. Devine, in addition to reducing us to mirthful wonder at his giddy achievement in the whopping big harpsichord cadenza of No. 4, projected the right propulsive energy as Bach director. Tom Piggot-Smith gave a robust injection of individual freedom into his various violin solos. Emma Murphy and Louise BradburyAnd faced with the question, which of the six do you like best, I could only say, the one we're hearing right now - though acoustically best of all was the Sixth; the church ambience gives a special resonance to middle-lower registers. As in the cantatas, where the contrasts are magnified a thousandfold, the sheer pleasure of welcoming extra players to shift the character in each work, from cellist Gabriella Swallow to recorder-players Emma Murphy and Louise Bradbury (pictured above by David Nice), brought an extra delight. A colossal achievement made up of seemingly effortless and joyous playing meeting with an equally joyous audience response- but never underestimate the focused energy these works require. I hope every component of the epic will find a home elsewhere, and more than once.

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