Pairing music from the 18th and 20th centuries is a common programming strategy, one which can bring out interesting parallels between the musical preoccupations of two very different eras. Some 20th-century composers looked to the more distant past as a way of engaging with traditions before the emotionally coercive 19th century. The still-living Arvo Pärt and the recently deceased Alfred Schnittke both make overt reference to older music, whether through direct quotation or through stylistic allusion. Both share with their Baroque ancestors Vivaldi and J.S. Bach a sense of the importance of religious faith. Some might even see more direct similarities: Pärt is perhaps like Vivaldi in the directness with which he addresses his listeners, while Schnittke more resembles the complexity of Bach.

Andreas Scholl © James McMillan and Decca
Andreas Scholl
© James McMillan and Decca

The opening Vivaldi Concerto Grosso in C (prefaced by a short intro in the same key from Neal Peres da Costa on the chamber organ) crackled with energy from the off. There was some lovely tonal shading in the central Largo, while in the outer movements the partnership between violinists Helena Rathbone and Rebecca Chan was particularly dynamic. The second piece, Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine (Give peace, O Lord) could hardly have been a greater contrast: it was planar, restrained, performed without vibrato.

There was no applause before Schnittke’s String Quartet no. 3, which began with a standard cadence derived from Lassus, but gradually worked its way to expressionist angst. The alternation between very different musical worlds continued throughout the three movements, and the players coped well with the consequent emotional and technical demands. The work is laced with quotations from the past, including the fugue subject from Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (first heard near the beginning), and the opening of Mahler’s song “Die zwei blauen Augen” (in the third movement).

Andreas Scholl featured for the first time in the pair of songs by Pärt that ended the first half. The Wallfahrtslied (“Pilgrim’s song”) began with a meditative string passage before the singer mainly chanted the two verses. The lengthy postlude ended by dissolving into the heights, from whence the psalmist had sought help. The second song, Es sang vor langen Jahren (“It sang many years ago”), was a clear highlight. The vocal line had something of the directness of a folk tune mingled with echoes of medieval song, giving it the elusive feeling of being already known even on first hearing, and Scholl sang it with affecting simplicity. His voice is cultured rather than powerful, with a magical way of warming longer notes with vibrato. The violin and viola provided a beautifully discreet accompaniment during the verses, and a more extensive alternating duet when on their own.

The second half began with Contrapunctus I–IV from Bach’s Art of Fugue, played by a quartet of strings doubled by the organ (on an unobtrusive eight-foot stop), with the double bass selectively added in. One couldn’t help but be reminded of Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music, where a string quartet obsess over the ethics and the practical difficulties of playing this music. Only five days previously, I’d heard Angela Hewitt play this same piece in the same hall, and for me, the piano version works better. This work is the summation of Bach’s fugal technique, and the difficulty inherent in phrasing four different horizontal strands is an essential part of its aesthetic substance. In the ACO’s version, with the parts devolved among the players, I felt the fugal aspect was almost incidental to the many other lovely things they brought out (certain sequential figures, for instance, and a dance-like feel to parts).

The setting of the “Our Father” by Pärt was in a simple, neo-romantic vein. It was a late addition to the program: the arrangement for string ensemble and countertenor was undertaken by the composer himself, and received its first performance on this tour. The original version, for boy soprano and piano, was part of a commission to honour the 60th anniversary of the ordination of Pope Benedict in 2011, although the piece itself had been written as early as 2005.

The final work, Vivaldi’s Stabat mater, was altogether marvellous. The music of Parts 1 to 3 is essentially repeated in Parts 4 to 6, but the orchestra sensitively varied the delivery in line with the words. For instance, the short notes in Part 2 (which talks about a sword piercing the heart of Christ’s Mother) sounded like sudden stabs, but in Part 5 (where we are asked to sympathise with the grieving mother) they became gentle caresses. The spiky dotted figuration in no. 7 was played with immaculate precision. Scholl shaped his melismas and lines in a way that made one forget about technique altogether – all attention was directed towards the expressive purpose. The encore, Handel’s evergreen “Ombra mai fu”, was truly glorious.

****1