Spare a thought for composers, in the ricocheting tumult of musical life since early 2020. They spend months or years writing a piece for specific musicians, venue, event. Most will earn at most the kind of fee a minor celebrity takes home for a single after-dinner speech. Then the concert is cancelled. John Luther Adams, the veteran “eco” composer, has had to wait two years for the world premiere of A Brief Descent Into Deep Time, his work for Theatre of Voices, co-commissioned by Kings Place, along with the Cork international choral festival and Carnegie Hall.
Originally a drummer who then worked in environmental protection in Alaska, Adams (b.1953) writes music inspired by the planet we live on. He calls it “sonic geography”. This latest slow-moving aural meditation on geological strata, intended for Kings Place’s 2020 Nature Unwrapped series, was nimbly shoehorned into this year’s Voices Unwrapped. He is not the first to take the Grand Canyon as his subject, nor will he be the last. Four singers slowly intoned rock names, music falling ever lower, from Kaibab limestone to Vishnu schist. The organist David Bendix Nielsen and percussionist George Barton provided minimal accompaniment. Only the final words, “grey, grey, dark grey, dark grey, black”, were distinguishable, the rest sounding like familiar vowels and consonants that could not quite translate into language.
Not that this mattered: Adams asks you to listen to the mesmerising and extraordinary vibrations of human voices in slow oscillation. Theatre of Voices, directed by Paul Hillier, embraced its weighty intention. The sounds were exquisite but the work stopped short of intimating the magnitude of two billion years. Try Harrison Birtwistle’s Deep Time (2016), complex and melancholy, for contrast. Theatre of Voices also performed David Lang’s 2008 Pulitzer-award winning The Little Match Girl Passion. The work that best showed the group’s talent was Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s beguiling Song (2010), based on the lute song Flow, My Tears (1596) by John Dowland, which emerges whole from a soundworld of chokes and sobs.
The winning combination of Elgar, Walton, the violinist James Ehnes, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the conductor John Wilson encouraged a big, and wildly enthusiastic, turnout at the Festival Hall (broadcast live on BBC Radio 3). Ehnes, who has the silkiest tone in the business, achieves a level of perfection, full of feeling but without show, that puts him in a class of his own. He was the choice for Walton’s fiendish Violin Concerto (1939), written for the great Jascha Heifetz, similarly renowned for flawless technique and restrained manner. Ehnes gave a poetic performance, bringing out the music’s wistfulness as well as its fury and dazzle. The Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic can play tricks with sound. On this occasion the Philharmonia’s mighty brass sometimes appeared to be accompanied by the rest of the orchestra, but there was no mistaking the excitement and energy of musicians playing at full tilt for a conductor who demands all, and mostly gets it.
Elgar’s Symphony No 1, the concert’s other work, presents a stately nobilmente exterior but as it unfurls, myriad tiny motifs eddy and spiral in constant, febrile motion. Without rushing, but always buoyant, Wilson propelled the music forward, so that when the hushed, slow movement melody arrived – marked in the score “expressive and sustained” – a sense of suspended animation took hold, until the trombones, gloriously noisy elsewhere but here muted, released us in the closing bars. The last movement, a summation of so much of the work to that point, romped home in urgent conclusion.
Friendship may equal love or grief as a source of musical inspiration. Without his great ally, the horn player Joseph Leutgeb, butt of much scurrilous teasing, Mozart is unlikely to have written so many works for the instrument. The young German horn player Felix Klieser played two of them – the Quintet for Piano and Winds, K452 and the Quintet for Horn and Strings, K407 – with principals of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and pianist Danny Driver on Wednesday (I watched it streamed live; the film is available online until 18 March).
This was an excellent opportunity for these musicians to play chamber music with Klieser, their artist in residence, and with each other. The two Mozart works exude spirit and wit. Brahms’s Horn Trio (Klieser, Driver and violinist Mark Derudder), written for the valveless natural horn, is a yearning study in melancholy. Klieser, who was born without arms, plays with his left foot, his horn supported on a tripod. It might be the first thing to note about him. Once he plays, his agile musicianship prevails. The audience at Lighthouse, Poole, gave a standing ovation.
Star ratings (out of five)
Theatre of Voices ★★★★
Felix Klieser ★★★★