Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2015 #3: Fretwork

St Augustine’s Church, Penarth, May 15 2015


One of the fascinating, entirely coincidental, strands running through the 2015 Vale of Glamorgan Festival is a sense of how strongly – and how exquisitely – the old can resonate within the new. I don’t mean by the deliberate referencing of older styles, say, á la neo-classicism, or by a simple nostalgia for music of the past – although examples of both can no doubt be found amongst the many diverse pieces on offer this year. Rather, I’m talking about something which arises from deep yearning, and which can be heard in different ways in the music of the two featured composers, Arvo Pärt and Dobrinka Tabakova: that is, the search for an underlying or innermost creative source which ultimately transcends ideas of ‘old’ and ‘new’.

Dobrinak Tabakova. Photo by Sussie Ahlburg.

Such merging of past and present, if you like, can be seen in the contemporary repertoire of Fretwork, one of the world’s finest viol consorts. They are pre-eminent in the Tudor and early Baroque fields that one might expect, but they are also outstanding pioneers in the commissioning and performing of new music; music for instruments which have existed for over 500 years, but are no less ‘contemporary’ than the violin, the piano, or the electric guitar. As founder-member Richard Boothby explained, in a pre-concert conversation with me on stage, it was the composer George Benjamin who first approached him with ideas for a collaboration, three years after Fretwork’s debut concert in 1986.* The success of that project opened the door to a stream of further composers working in a range of idioms, all entranced by the intimate, mellow sound world of the viol consort.

Intriguingly, Fretwork’s visit to the Vale Festival was their first ever presentation of a solely contemporary programme. Of the eleven pieces and extracts performed, nine had been written specifically for the consort – alongside arrangements of pieces by Pärt and Tabakova which felt so apt, they might just as well have been. It was an evening of compelling, often very beautiful music-making, in which the consort – comprising five players on this occasion, with pieces re-arranged for that number where needed – grew throughout in warmth and intensity of sound.

They began and ended with movements I and II respectively from Orlando Gough’s hugely poignant Birds on Fire (2001). Both sections were played with expressive heat, but the passionate virtuosity of the latter was evidence of the energy and momentum built throughout the concert. Full of intricate, asymmetric rhythms and textures, Gough’s piece uses klezmer tunes in agonising suggestion of Aaron Appelfeld’s 1939 novel Badenheim, in which Jews are segregated from Gentiles at an imaginary Austrian holiday resort for deportation east towards certain death. It is an intensely moving piece, which places all kinds of technical and emotional demands on the players.

Writing for viol consort is very different from writing for other, more ‘modern’ string ensembles. The sound is distinctive of course – quieter and differently nuanced – and individual viols have a much greater pitch range, resulting in a good deal of overlap between members of the family (of which there are seven, with consorts most commonly comprising combinations of three: treble, tenor and bass viol). Traditionally, no one instrument dominates proceedings (unlike a string quartet’s first violin, say), making the viol consort refreshingly democratic by nature. The most successful pieces to my mind either make a feature of these characteristics, or have such integrity of harmony or line that the music seems to emanate from a single, breathing body, regardless of the idiom or techniques employed. Interestingly as Boothby explained, early consorts often played music, such as Part Songs, originally intended for voices.

Double bassist/composer Barry Guy. Photo taken at the Huddersfield Festival.

Of the concert’s first half, BUZZ (1994) by double bassist/composer Barry Guy was outstanding. Like the Duncan Druce, John Woolrich and Alexander Goehr which preceded it, the piece originated in the Fantasia. But, in his referencing of 17th century techniques through present-day glissandi, harmonics and other expressive devices, Guy’s imagination proved – to my ears at least – the richer. Dramatic squalls of notes contrasted with the hushed, pitchless sweeping of bow across gut strings, in a piece expressly designed for this exact combination of viols – and all in celebration of a type of articulation employed by the late, great jazz bassist Charlie Mingus. It was magically conceived, and beautifully performed by Fretwork.

A lovely arrangement of Pärt’s well-known, seemingly infinitely flexible Fratres (1977/1989) led to the interval, after which came Nico Muhly’s excellent Slow; hotfoot from its world premiere at the recent ‘Minimalism Unwrapped’ festival in London. Reich was a clear link here between the cantus firmus of 16th century in nomine and its explosion into chains of repeated notes. Indeed, Slow is a fine homage to the many procedures common to certain minimalists and early composers, through ground basses, rhythmic ‘processing’, uses of sequence, motivic repetition and so on.

The late Austrailian composer Peter Sculthorpe opted for stunning simplicity in Djilile (1994), based on an Aboriginal chant, whilst Andrew Keeling’s Afterwords (1990) was a recomposition for viols of a setting of a poem by Sylvia Plath. Mournful in character, this traversed enigma and drama alike in its sliding, passing-note harmonies.

These and other pieces contained bags of aural treasure, but for me the passionate highlight of the evening came in the short but penultimate piece, an arrangement of Tabakova’s Organum Light (2014). Originally written for modern strings, Tabakova’s inspiration was Einstein’s theory that light exists as tiny particles or photons – and Boothby explained how an expression indication in the score meant he couldn’t resist it: ‘On the string, little vibrato, like a viol consort’.

It sounded superb in arrangement, with Fretwork bringing an urgent vulnerability to the work. ‘Organum’, of course, suggests plainchant with added voices, which seems tailor-made for viols. So perhaps the key to its success already lay in Tabakova’s programme note, in which she described seeking to weave ‘individual lines to create one whole.’ This simple statement seemed to sum up an entire aesthetic approach, not only of her own exquisite music, but of large swathes of the viol consort repertoire, both old and new, spanning half a millenia of sound.


* Resulting in Benjamin’s Upon Silence (1990), a setting of WB Yeat’s ‘The Long Legged Fly’ for mezzo-soprano and five viols.

There is a further chance to hear Organum Light this Friday, May 22 at the Norwegian Church, Cardiff – this time in its original string quintet formation, performed by soloists from China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra.

Week 2 of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival commences this evening with members of the same ensemble at St Illtud’s Church, Llantwit Major: