In our penultimate report from this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival, Cath Barton was at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall for the final performance of works by Arvo Pärt and Dobrinka Tabakova.
It was fitting that the finale of this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival should showcase the work of the festival’s featured composers, Arvo Pärt and Dobrinka Tabakova, and that for this occasion it should accord their music the spaciousness of Cardiff’s premier concert hall. I wondered if would be just too big a space, but with the very respectably-sized audience accommodated in the centre of the lower two tiers of seating, the concert actually felt quite intimate, while the music could nonetheless resonate through all the spaces of the hall.
Five years ago Pärt was also featured in the Vale Festival for his 75th birthday and came to Wales to hear his music performed. I remember seeing him on the occasion of a concert in which the Cello Octet Amsterdam were giving the UK premieres of four of his works, and being struck by his simple modesty. This year he is being celebrated in his 80th year: no premieres, but a view back over the range of his work. His output is immense (his publisher Universal Edition lists 189 works) but his style has crystallised over the second half of his life and he has settled on a very specific and immediately recognisable way of writing, represented in this concert by two of his most recent works for choir and string orchestra, Adam’s Lament (2009/2010) and Stabat Mater (2008).
Adam’s Lament is a setting of words by St Silouan of Athos (1866-1938), sung in Russian. Although given a committed performance by the players of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and singers of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir – several of whom sang throughout from memory – it is inevitably a challenge for non-Russian speakers to follow the narrative, even with the English translation provided. So it was a welter of sound, an outpouring of anguish, containing beauty certainly but sadly, for me at least, no emotional connection.
It was also overshadowed by the piece which preceded it and opened the concert, Dobrinka Tabakova’s Centuries of Meditation (2012), which was commissioned for the Three Choirs Festival and premiered in the year of its composition by the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir with the Orchestra of the Swan conducted by David Hill in Hereford Cathedral, under the stained glass windows which were its inspiration. A translucent work for choir and strings, this entrances the listener from the start as the strings shimmer under the voices.
Tabakova exploits every technique available to her players, adding harp – here played by Ceri Wynne Jones – to create additional layers of resonance, akin to the bell-like sounds which are integral to Pärt’s work. Voices and strings blend and are woven together in a completely captivating way. Her music will appeal instantly to lovers of the English choral tradition, and yet it is new and different and all her own. Her choice of texts from the works of the English mystic Thomas Traherne is nothing short of completely felicitous – the very quality he himself sought.
In the second half of this concert we heard the UK premiere of Tabakova’s Concerto for Violincello and Strings (2008), with Kristina Blaumane, for whom the piece was written, as cello soloist. In the first movement a curious thing happened: at a certain point the soloist was playing, alone, and yet there was a penumbra of sound around her. Whether this was a happy effect of the acoustics of the hall or Tabakova is some sort of mesmerist I cannot say. Her sound certainly blooms – a word she uses herself in her always unpretentious, illuminating programme notes – and the hall certainly carries it out, but there is something more. It is perhaps that access to a deep source which has been mentioned before in relation to both Tabakova and Pärt’s music, something intangible.
I would say to anyone who loves the cello and who reveres Elgar’s Cello Concerto that they should listen to this work. The cover of this year’s Vale Festival programme carries the strapline ‘Today’s New Music; Tomorrow’s Classics’. I would say that this could be one of them.
Some of Arvo Pärt’s works are already widely regarded as classics of the contemporary repertoire. For me, one such would be Passio (1982), his setting of the St John Passion which was his first collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble. I found his Stabat Mater (2008), the final work in this concert, for SAT choir and strings, reminiscent of that work, though much pared back.
In old age Pärt has sought this paring back to what is for him the essential, but what is lost is the drama inherent in Passio, and which other composers, such as Pergolesi, have conveyed in their settings of this lament of the mother of Christ at the cross. In particular, the moment when Christ gives up the spirit needs a quietude, but here it is merely part of the flow of Pärt’s particular technique, where I feel his emphasis on the maths and the mechanics has stripped away the emotional content. Nonetheless these players and singers are clearly very much at home with Pärt’s music, and though his demands on the higher voices are sometimes extreme, this performance was as strong and focused as the composer could have wished.
Dobrinka Tabakova was at the concert; Arvo Pärt was not. If he had been I’m sure he would have received as warm and enthusiastic a reception as she did. As it was I felt the applause for Pärt’s work was primarily respectful. And indeed, he has undoubtedly said most – maybe all – of what he has to say as a composer. Tabakova is still young and overflowing with creativity.
Last year I criticised the Vale Festival for its poor represention of female composers. All credit to John Metcalf and his team for featuring Dobrinka Tabakova this year alongside Arvo Pärt: a brilliant success.
Arvo Pärt / Dobrinka Tabakova
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, May 23 2015
Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Kristine Blaumane: cello
Ceri Wynne Jones: harp
Conductor: Kristjan Järvi
Photograph of Arvo Pärt by Peeter Langovits
Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and in early 2021 Retreat West Books will publish her collection of short stories inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.