Arts Festival Review: The Hilliard Ensemble - PassioReviewed by Nick Tipping
Composed by Arvo Part
The Hilliard Ensemble, Lisette Wesseling, Richard Alexander, Voices NZ
14 March 2006
Wellington Town Hall
The Hilliard Ensemble will also perform Arkhangelos on 15 March (Sold Out)
Arvo Part has, since the mid-1970s, become one of the most popular composers in Western concert music. Estonian, he has developed a distinctive style (tintinnabuli) which, in part, combines plainchant and minimalism. Passio (the St John Passion), written in 1982, is one of his many sacred works, and is a large-scale demonstration of this technique, written for six soloists, five instruments and choir.
The interweaving lines of all solo parts demand the utmost in musical skill, tuning, vocal control, and concentration. Arvo Part's linear approach to composition means that there are frequent tone and semitone clashes between voices, and between voices and instruments, all of which requires the soloists to hold their nerve.
All singers succeeded admirably- so much so that the concert was something of a masterclass in ensemble singing for soloists. The wonderful Hilliard Ensemble showed the value of such choral techniques as vowel-matching and ear training, often to such an extent that it was difficult to tell who was singing which line.
As soloists, they were all strong, as were Lisette Wesseling and Richard Alexander, who sang the soprano and bass (Christ) roles just as skilfully - occasional tuning problems by Alexander may well have been due to his position in front of the organ. His voice is rich and filled the hall, as did the remarkable Wesseling. Her voice is capable of wonderful purity and accuracy, which made for some notable interplay with Hilliard countertenor Steven James.
A quartet of Wellington players provided the instrumental voices, which perform much the same musical function as the solo voices. Helene Pohl (violin), Merran Cooke (oboe), Colin Hemmingsen (bassoon), Rolf Gjelsten (cello), and Douglas Mews (organ) were all dependable, and interacted sensitively with the singers.
TOWER Voices New Zealand, performing the chorus role, sang immaculately but, for the presence they projected, were underused for such an accomplished choir.
Karen Grylls directed the performance, and provided a sensitive interpretation. Silence is an especially important aspect of this work, and often carries as much weight as the music itself; Dr Grylls was not afraid to make full use of the silence incorporated into the score, and the performance was richer and more moving as a result.
Each voice in Passio occupies a very narrow pitch range, and the whole does not vary much in dynamic for long stretches. This means that the text is much more the focus than the music, and it was a pity that the programme notes did not provide the original Latin text so that audience members could follow along and understand what was happening. The unison and then resolution of the conclusion, coming after so much unvarying music, was a palpable relief - extremely effectively handled by Grylls.
Audience members spoken to by this reviewer had strong, but differing opinions of the work; minimalism, by its nature, forces the audience to engage with and respond to the music. With effects ranging from boredom to enchantment, it could be said Part achieved his purpose! Aside from this, however, the work (in terms of the sustained control required) provided a showcase of skill for the singers.