Present-day Concerns

MIKE WHEELER listens to music by Valentin Silvestrov and Karl Jenkins


A change of venue for Derby Choral Union and conductor Paul Provost, though the choir did perform there many years ago - St Alkmund's Church, Derby, 29 October 2022. The programme was clearly designed to reflect present-day concerns.

The string-players of Central England Camerata were fully on the right wavelength for emigré Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov's Silent Music. Its three short movements all inhabit a hesitant, fragile world, and consequently are rather too similar in mood, and in scoring - melodic phrases for the violins and violas, pizzicato figures for the cellos and basses. But it's good to see Silvestrov beginning to be explored.

Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man is, of course, highly popular, but it is an uneven work. Subtitled a 'mass for peace', commissioned for the Millennium celebrations at the Royal Armouries Museum, and dedicated to victims of the war in Kosovo, it is obviously full of good intentions, but doesn't always rise to them.

From left to right: Valentin Silvestrov, Paul Provost and Karl Jenkins
From left to right: Valentin Silvestrov, Paul Provost and Karl Jenkins

Setting a mixture of Catholic mass-text and other poetic sources, it clearly positions itself in line of descent from Britten's War Requiem. Those additional texts, though, are part of the problem - there are simply too many of them. The work tries to do too much, and loses focus as a result.

The opening choral-orchestral arrangement of the fifteenth-century popular song 'L'Homme Armé' - Beware the armed man - from which the work takes its name, acquired a fair degree of bounce in a well-controlled build-up. There was not much that could be done, though, with the over-long, over-repetitive setting of the Kyrie that follows. The tenors and basses sounded a little tentative in 'Save me from bloody men', but the Sanctus was more confident, and the theatricality of Dryden's 'The trumpet's loud clangour' was effectively projected, ending with a moving off-stage 'Last Post'.

The two following movements set Japanese and Hindu texts that on paper invite vivid, even lurid, treatment. Counter-intuitively setting them as expressions of numbed shock is a master-stroke, well captured by the choir. But their impact is diminished by the next three movements, which are too similar in tone.

In the return of 'L'Homme Armé' at the end, the dance-rhythms were well pointed in this performance. Sadly, the platitude-laden text reduces the intended urgency of the message to toe-curling banality. Even so, the work would end more effectively with the dance; I could happily have dispensed with the saccharine pieties of the final chorus.

Copyright © 9 November 2022 Mike Wheeler,
Derby UK






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