Prayer of the Heart: Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet

A sequence of Renaissance and modern works – the former frequently
inspiring the latter, both directly and less consciously – was presented in
an unbroken sequence which was performed and choreographed with serene
composure, concentration and fluidity. Considerable thought, preparation
and rehearsal had clearly been invested in both the concept and its
manifestation. The seven singers (conductor Owain Park occasionally took a
place amid his ensemble) began in the Hall gallery: their subsequent
descent to the platform was effected inconspicuously and fluently; at times
they departed leaving, the string quartet players alone on stage; the
latter arranged themselves in a central arc, cellist Jacqueline Thomas
seated, then later formed a line perpendicular to the rear wall. Finally,
the singers and musicians came together in a broad semicircle which
interlaced voice and strings, embracing and uniting all as one. If this
sounds a little laboured, or contrived, that might have been a risk, but it
was one that was avoided, so persuasive was the performers’ sincerity and

The music of John Tavener framed the sequence. Into the darkness of Hall
One pulsed the repetitive life-beat of Prayer of the Heart as,
supported by the strings’ sustained pianissimo purity, the
monastic mantra floated from on high. The work was originally composed for
Bjˆrk and the Brodsky Quartet, to benefit the charity The Chain of Hope, and the Icelandic singer had been instructed to
‘sit on a low stool, bowing towards the heart’ to facilitate ‘the soul’s
concentration, and its unification in ecstasy’. On this occasion the
singers moved meditatively around the gallery, their sedate but fluent
procession matching the work’s slow harmonic progression.

Subsequently, old and new were fused in a beautifully reflective chain.
‘Parce mihi Domine’, a setting of a text from Job by the
sixteenth-century Spaniard, CristÛbal de Morales, as ‘reimagined’ by
Latvian ?riks Eöenvalds as a four-voice introduction to his 2005 oratorio Passion and Resurrection, initiated the musical and religious
time-travel, the slow musical metamorphoses perfectly reflecting the wider
concept of the evening. Arvo P‰rt came to mind, not for the last time
during the concert, and not least in the vigour, complementing the
cleanness of sound, that was conjured by string interjections, harmonic
interest and textual detail, such as the stirring crescendo
through ‘et si mane me quaesieris’ (for now shall I sleep in dust).

This served as an entrÈe to Roxanna Panufnik’s Votive for
string quartet – commissioned in memory of Cavatina Chamber Music Trust
co-founder, Pamela Majaro – in which tentative gestures ushered in a
yearning cello melody that became an elaborate vocalise, passed ever higher
across the players, increasing in intensity and cadencing in a joyful
major-key climax, the players’ flourished final up-bows conveying the
work’s jubilant aspirations. Panufnik’s O Hearken followed.
Setting verses from Psalm 5, it was a choral summons in which rich
homophonic layerings formed a soundscape of gentle dissonance.

Owain Park’s Phos hilaron, a setting of one of the earliest
Christian hymns, was sung in darkness, Gesualdo Six taking position in the
Kings Place aisles and singing from memory, following countertenor Guy
James’s well-defined and assertive solo melody. It was preceded by
Hildegard von Bingen’s O Ecclesia, in which the tenor solo sat
upon a warm hum and soft strings (no credit to an arranger was given); this
was lovely singing but I felt as if the opportunity for more dramatic
communication was not grasped.

There was drama, though, in Panufnik’s This paradise, a setting of
Canto 23 from Dante’s Paradiso, the third part of the Divine Comedy, in which the combination of string quartet and six
male voices produced some startling timbres and colours: portamento hums against tremulous gestures and fragile harmonics
at the start of ‘A bird … her heart ablaze, awaits the sun’; rhythmic
muscularity in ‘Triumphing the soldiery of Christ’; a storm of trills and
scalic flights in ‘… bolts of fire, unlocked from thunder clouds’; echoes
and piling seventh chords, adding enigma to the concluding ‘And so the
perfect circling of that tune sealed its conclusion’.

Sarah Rimkus’s My Heart is Like a Singing Bird connected us to the
madrigalian grace of the Elizabethan Renaissance by way of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols; Hennig Kraggerud’s Preghiera, written
for the Brodsky Quartet, moved from meditation to improvisatory momentum,
offering first violinist Gina McCormack some flights of fancy and martial
energy into which to bite her musical teeth.

Then, we arrived at what seemed to the musical destination of this
programme: Panufnik’s ‘completion’ of her father Sir Andrzej Panufnik’s
setting of Polish poet Jerzy Pietrkiewicz’s two-stanza prayer, Modlitwa; and, O Tu Andrzej commissioned by the Brodsky
Quartet in memory of her father. The former sounded, to my ear, full of
Eastern European echoes – on this first hearing, I sensed the sound-world
of Dvo?·k and Jan·?ek rather than anything specifically ‘Polish’ – and
featured strongly characterised solos by baritone Michael Craddock and
tenor Joseph Wicks, which conversed with the cello’s harmonically inflected
excursions. The latter saw Park join his ensemble once more to add his
voice to the piling-up stacks of semitonal dissonances and harmonic

We returned to Tavener at the close, his setting of The Lord’s Prayer bringing an expertly delivered sequence to a
close, and in which it was lovely to see the experienced members of the
Brodsky Quartet take their lead from Park and his young singers, and to
feel all involved relish the collaboration.

So, after such pleasures, where’s the ‘but’? Well, if you were happy to sit
back, shut your eyes and submit to the spiritual bliss, then all was well
and good. If, on the other hand, you wanted to engage with the texts and
reflect on the meaning conveyed as note and word conversed, combatted and
entwined, there were problems: not least that, in the gloom in Hall One, it
was impossible to read a single word of the printed texts provided in a
supplementary programme sheet. But, also, Gesualdo Six threw the consonants
into a sonic space where they became instantly undiscernible and
irretrievable. This was a pity. An opportunity to really appreciate the
spiritual union of words and music was lost.

But, given the numbers who rose to their feet to thanks the performers at
the end of the concert, I guess this was of less irritation to most at
Kings Place than it was to this listener, concerned as I was to experience
the performance intellectually as well as emotionally. Never mind, next
time I will simply shut my eyes and enjoy!

Claire Seymour

Prayer of the Heart
: Brodsky Quartet & Gesualdo Six

John Tavener – Prayer of the Heart; Morales/Eöenvalds –Parce mihi Domine; Roxanna Panufnik –Votive, O Hearken; Hildegard von Bingen – O Ecclesia; Owain Park – Phos Hilaron; Panufnik –This Paradise; Sarah Rimkus –My heart is like a singing bird; Henning Kraggerud – Preghiera (Prayer); A & R Panufnik – Modlitwa, O Tu Andrzej; John TavenerThe
Lord’s Prayer.

Kings Place, London; Friday 20th December 2019.

product_title=Prayer of the Heart: Gesualdo Six and the Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Gesualdo Six

Photo credit: Ash Mills