An ambient concert from the BBC Proms curated by the BBC Singers and Shiva Feshareki, pairing Renaissance works with contemporary pieces.
For a few years now, the Proms have included an ‘ambient music’ concert – usually a combination of contemporary and Renaissance choral music, with added instruments and textured sounds. Some have been more successful than others, but Thursday evening’s was probably the best so far. The BBC Singers, under their regular conductor Sofi Jeannin, were joined by the experimental composer and turntablist Shiva Feshareki, and an eclectic collection of instruments including a viola da gamba, a synthesizer, a bass clarinet, a generous array of percussion instruments, and organ.
Pairing was the name of the game, and earlier works by Josquin, Tallis, Janequin, Sweelinck and Byrd were teamed up with contemporary pieces – which had drawn inspiration from them – by Feshareki, Ken Burton, Bernard Hughes, Nico Muhly and Roderick Williams. The flow of music was seamless, and where necessary, short intermedi, full of interesting instrumental colours, provided harmonic and atmospheric transitions.
The BBC Singers were on fine form; normally, one wouldn’t look to them for gold standard interpretations of Renaissance repertoire, but their less ‘period mannered’ style finessed the stylistic differences between old and new. This was particularly evident in their performance of Hildegard von Bingen’s O viridissima virga, where a gap between the open, mediaeval-plainchant lines and the mysteriously fused instrumental textures (bass clarinet, gamba and percussion) underneath needed closing. There were nods to Renaissance performance practice, and, in Janequin’s Le chant des oiseaux, the singers gave full measure to all of its rhythmic imitative writing. Bernard Hughes’ specially commissioned Birdchant, which followed this, was the best pairing of the evening; Hughes took Janequin’s mimicry to extremes, while still following the latter’s tonality and rhythm, and the singers responded with enthusiasm, producing squawks and coos with dramatic flair.
Other pairings were interesting, although, in keeping with the ‘cool ambiance’, none of the modern pieces had anything in them to frighten the horses, being a collection of largely homophonic, ‘note cluster based’ works that have become de rigueur over the last 30 years or so of choral writing. Nico Muhly’s commissioned piece A New Flame (the companion to Sweelinck’s Je sense n moy une flame nouvelle) managed to contain brief snatches of polyphony, but these were merely lifted from Sweelinck and woven into the background of an angular tenor solo over a wash of choral pabulum; the development – containing more ambulatory homophonic choral writing over twinkling percussion – was more lyrical.
Ken Burton’s Many are the wonders (twinned with Tallis’ Loquebantur variis linguis) took the form of a Spiritual, with a declamatory solo tenor and a series of homophonic built chords rising to a thrilling high final ‘Alleluia’. Roderick Williams is best known as one of the UK’s most accomplished baritone soloists, but he is also composes, and his Ave Verum Corpus Re-imagined (paired with Byrd’s original) was an exercise in choral turntablism. Sections of Byrd’s original were slowed, deconstructed, layered and pulled apart into unaccompanied solo lines, as if performed in a dreamscape.
Aether World, Feshareki’s response to Josquin’s Qui habitat in adiutorio altissimi, also summoned a dream landscape. A mix of divergent timbral textures (from all of the instruments onstage, and culminating in some massive organ chords), it brought to mind Caliban’s Act III speech in The Tempest: “the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs… a thousand twangling instruments will hum… and sometime voices…”. An enjoyable experiment to listen to, and the wordless choral writing brought to mind Giles Swayne’s 1979 Cry which achieved much the same effect but using only voices.
Full details of this year’s Prom season can be found here.