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Taverner, Evan Johnson, Sheppard & Ferneyhough

John Taverner: Marian Antiphons: Mater Christi, Dum transisset,
Evan Johnson: Colophons (“That other that ich not whenne”) reflecting pool/monument,
John Sheppard: Libera nos I and II,
Brian Ferneyhough: Intermedio alla ciaconna, Missa brevis

EXAUDI, James Weeks, conductor, Mieko Kanno, violin

Spitalfields Festival at Shoreditch Church, 13 June 2008

There was a trend in the 1990s for easy comparisons between early music and recent composition. It gave rise to such unwelcome monikers as ’Holy minimalism’ and did little of the music much credit. In the weakest examples of such scattergun marketing both and new music were diminished in the service of nondescript wallpaper spiritualism.

EXAUDI rise above all that. This concert, combining Tudor motets with Anglo-American modernism, was profoundly satisfying not only because of smart and sincere programming, but also because of EXAUDI’s sensitivity to the musical lessons to be learnt from both eras. Their core repertoire of late modernism makes pretty uncompromising demands upon its performers, but the group’s great strength is in not letting standards drop for the apparently easier Renaissance repertory. Mater Christi, The first of two Marian Antiphons by John Taverner that opened the concert, was a beautiful illustration. The control, precision and balance of the 12 voices was remarkable in itself, but most breathtaking were the final bars. Many performances of Renaissance polyphony reveal a series of climaxes rolling into one another, a sort of permanent ecstatic state that cancels out any specific musical structure and leaves the listener in an anonymous state of bliss; EXAUDI, however, kept a tight lid on their dynamics until the very end when a sudden crescendo into the closing cadence made the heart leap into the throat. A thrilling and revelatory moment made possible by technique and interpretative skills honed on avant-garde repertoire.

Those skills were tested to their utmost in Johnson’s Colophons (“That other that ich not whenne”) reflecting pool/monument. Thanks to a restart brought on by a hilariously childish tantrum thrown by two audience members who had been asked to stop whispering, we heard most of the piece twice; the rest of us agreed that it was very beautiful indeed. The composer admits to a “quite extraordinarily awkward” title, but it does convey something of the compression he has forced upon musical materials that threaten to spill out, like stuffing a pillow with only one hand. In its way, it chimed remarkably with the Tudor pieces on the programme: one of Johnson’s modus operandi is to deliberately restrict his musical options at the outset – in this case he seemed to do so in terms of a very narrow, and quiet, dynamic envelope, alongside a similarly compressed range of melodic possibilities – and into those restrictions squeeze music that is far more expansive than its container can possibly hold.

EXAUDI’s Sheppard and Taverner performances captured something too of an ornate continental style pushing against the boundaries of a more restrained Englishness, in which a single vocal excursion for a single bar becomes the only counterfoil to an immense expressive tension.

This exquisite balance between restraint and release was exemplified at the centre of Colophons, when a crackling solo violin drone is suddenly left alone for an impossibly long caesura that sucks the air out of the room and somehow cantilevers the weight of the two outer choral sections. The effect was entirely reversed in the performance of Ferneyhough’s Missa brevis that resoundingly closed the concert. Mieko Kanno’s crisp Intermedio all ciaconna functioned effectively as a stepping-stone into Ferneyhough’s realm, but again profound connections between old and new, particularly in the treatment of single voices against a massed choral background, were evident. The greater surprise – for someone like myself who did not hear EXAUDI’s Missa brevis at Aldeburgh last year – was the ferocious energy of their reading. Even noting that this is an early and transitional piece, I have never heard Ferneyhough performed with such respect for clarity, attack and dynamic contrast. It revealed a grit to the music that is rarely heard and took it away from intellectualised filigree and close to Birtwistle’s earthy physicality. Happiest of all, this startling performance came about not through sheer volume (although there was plenty of that) or spoonfed extravagance (not present) but through a sincere and absolute commitment to the notes. Stunning.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Pictured: Evan Johnson