As the concert-streamed-from-empty-hall format continues, different producers are taking different approaches. The Bergen Philharmonic are required by their health authorities to record their concerts in advance and for last night’s “Close up - at a distance” stream, they dropped any pretence of making it a live-like occasion. Each work was for a very different formation, ranging from solo cello to full string orchestra; between each work, we faded to credits, to return to see different musicians set up and ready for the next one.

Edward Gardner
© Bergen Philharmonic

This approach permitted Edward Gardner to curate an interesting programme, with a piece from English early music followed by the 20th century works they inspired. Of the eight works played, there was no question as to which affected me most: Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The construction is simple: a descending scale that appears to never end as a new group of instruments takes over in the high register and moves inexorably towards the depths, punctuated by the toll of a single tubular bell which plays on shifting offbeats, hitting you with its funeral melancholy in a way that’s continual but irregular. Gardner marshalled his forces superbly, pointing at slight shifts in timbre or accenting in each repeat and expertly weighting the dynamics. Towards end of the Cantus, the high registers fade and we are left with the cellos, basses and the lowest notes of the violins and violas playing chords which are achingly suspended even by the standards of Mahler’s Adagietto: Gardner drew untold reserves of timbral colour. Then, as you think you can’t plumb any further depths, the strings of the Bergen Phil sank even lower to a richly satisfying end.

The sequence had started with John Dowland’s short If my complaints could passions move, sung by the Edvard Grieg Choir in the small format of just eight singers. The choir produced lovely tone, individual weight of voice and perfect balance (all singers were individually miked), allowing the delicious Elizabethan harmonies to shine through with Dowland’s characteristic shifts from minor to major as a phrase ends. In the reverberant space, however, intelligibility was lost.

© Bergen Philharmonic

Britten’s Lachrymae is a “reflection” of that Dowland piece, originally written for cello and piano but played here in the composer’s own orchestral arrangement, with the Bergen Phil’s Latvian principal cellist Ilze Klava. This is Dowland taken apart and reassembled much in the spirit of a cubist painter, each segment manipulated in timbre and texture. The Bergen Phil’s string players were particularly strong at rendering the piece’s prevailingly dark mood, with pizzicato double basses and staccato seeming to fight against Klava’s earnest efforts at shining above with lyrical melody – or then the reverse, with pizzicato viola above gentle, nocturnal legato strings. The exploration of string timbre eventually returned to Dowland’s Elizabethan lushness, with a beatific smile on Klava’s face as the piece ends with the sweetest lyricism. Three of the trumpeters were given a chance to show their mettle in Britten’s Fanfare for St Edmundsbury, an unusual piece in which each player has different timbre and rhythm; they rose to the challenge of bringing these three very diverse parts into a coherent whole.

The concert had started with Purcell’s Funeral Sentences, the eight singers of the Edvard Grieg Choir melding with brass and drums: here again, excellence of vocal timbre and balance was marred by poor intelligibility. I’m not sure if Arne Nordheim’s 1980 Clamavi, for cello solo, was inspired by the Purcell: this was an interesting exposition of cello technique, with tricks like simultaneous bowed legato and left hand pizzicato, but I struggled to grasp the overall shape of the work.

The orchestra returned to barnstorming form for the final work, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, preceded by the choir performing the original Tallis theme. Like Britten, Vaughan Williams enhances the Elizabethan work with a multiplicity of string textures, but he does not share Britten’s spiky angularity: for the most exciting parts of the work, we are in full MGM Panavision and Technicolor, with the Bergen Phil again showing their ability to create lush spectral richness.

A mixed event overall, but at the very least, the Pärt Cantus is not to be missed.

This concert was reviewed from the video stream.