Gareth Farr’s Relict Furies – resonant and moving at Wellington Cathedral

The New Zealand Festival 2016 presents:
Music by Gareth Farr
Libretto by Paul Horan

Strings of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)

ELGAR – Introduction and Allegro for Strings Op.47
SCULTHORPE – Sonata for Strings No.3 (from String Quartet No.11 “Jabiru Dreaming”) – 1. Deciso  2.Liberamente – Estatico
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul,

Tuesday 15th March, 2016

This concert at the Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul all but replicated the programme of an Edinburgh Festival Concert last year, performed on the 26th August at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, and featuring the premiere of Gareth Farr’s work Relict Furies. On that occasion the Scottish Ensemble was joined by well-known mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly in the performance of Farr’s piece, to great critical acclaim: – “a heart-stabbing evocation of the First World War” proclaimed one notice, while another read “fantastic music….permeated with breathtaking orchestration….” Farr’s work was a joint commission by the Edinburgh and New Zealand International Arts Festivals.

Last night Wellington heard the New Zealand premiere of Farr’s Relict Furies, in a programme which featured the strings of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra  playing (as was done in Edinburgh) music by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Sculthorpe (the Scots, one noted, had cannily treated themselves to a truly resplendent bonus, that of Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra.). These works, it might be guessed by now, all feature string orchestras divided in some way, which certainly made for fascinating and ear-catching results throughout.

The programme’s centre-piece was, of course, Gareth Farr’s work – its title Relict Furies, came from the librettist Paul Horan, who attributed the reference to his mother’s influence. He remembered how she hated the use of the word “relict”, which meant “widow” – so that it seemed the word was employed here as a kind of “confrontation” of response ranged against situation, especially in the context of women’s writings of the period, and about the effects of the war.

The poetry by Paul Horan I found very moving, but no more than I did Gareth Farr’s incredibly receptive and sensitive identification with the words throughout. Right from the opening I was caught up in feelings engendered by those deep tones, still, rich and lovely. The first song “Onward” spoke of the conflict between public duty and private feelings, how the door dividing the two represented a welcome barrier between the cheering crowd and the privacy of life and love, and how that barrier was opened to allow the two worlds to fatally mingle.

Here were deep string tones redolent of the love between husband and wife, and the jarring counter-harmonies of the upper strings representing the strident tones of the cheering crowd – an impasse that was boldly negated in a spirit of adventure, but was, of course, to go horribly wrong, with jabbing accents attaching the music’s flowing lines as the beginning of the second song taking us right into the marrow of things.  Those eerie string harmonies hovering about the singer’s words “Tomorrow I wear my wedding shoes to your funeral….I’ll be on display on the lip of your grave…” contained echoes of the Last Post, magical and ghostly at one and the same time, as if the tragedy of death had a kind of inevitability.

Farr’s beautiful handling of the work’s contrasts confronted us with impassioned outbursts such as – “I’ll be on my own on the lip of your grave…” leading to the bleak ostinato-led transition into the third song “Remains”, a sequence which burgeoned in feeling towards the outburst at “White, dark terror”, and then exhaustedly subsiding into a wasteland of on-going resonance of loss. I particularly loved the string-writing at the work’s very end – the woman sung about “an unpitied life, picking up where we never started”, as the two orchestral halves magically evoked both the living and the dead, and kind of wreathed them all around with contrasting tones and timbres – as if the real and “ghost” worlds were linked for a while by memory and evocation…..

In general I was enraptured by the score – I thought the writing for the two sections of the strings was outstanding – the opening division of “low” and high tomes between the two groups added to the sense of dislocation and menace and impending doom. The balance between the two was never excessive or lop-sided, so that the “layered” aspect of the experience of loss, bereavement and widowhood was characterized as profound and affecting without being over-wrought and destructive.

Margaret Medlyn, called in to sing at short notice, due to another performer’s indisposition, gave a splendidly committed and impassioned performance, movingly tempered in places by a rapt sensitivity. The ample acoustic of the cathedral made it difficult for us to follow her exact words at moments of great agitation, but the sense of anguish was palpably conveyed.

As for the other pieces, I though both the Sculthorpe and the Vaughan Williams came off most successfully. The Sculthorpe Sonata was a string orchestra version of a string quartet, made in 1994, one called “Jabiru Dreaming”, in two movements, whose titles are Deciso and Estatico. This work is an entrancing depiction of the Australian outback, and uses different string-playing techniques to recreate indigenous sounds – col legno effects that bring to mind tribalistic rituals involving stick games and ceremonial dancing, and rapid repeated glissandi in the violins to bring to mind birdsong – the string-writing had a wonderfully outdoor atmosphere that put me in mind of Sibelius’s “saga” music in places, and later on, Copland’s “new land” evocations.

The Vaughan Williams work was superbly played, especially the haunted dialogues between the two string orchestras. This was a work where the ample acoustic of the cathedral worked almost totally in the music’s favour. The lines had a glow, a halo of intensity around them and a resonance that unholstered the on-going atmospheres of the work in a timeless kind of way, so that we were able to forget ourselves and luxuriate in these sounds. Throughout this and in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings, the solo playing was superb, the give-and-take between the principals of the orchestra a delight.

I thought the work that came off least well was the Elgar, mainly because of the acoustic of the cathedral. Parts of the work again glowed with a refulgent beauty – the sequences which have come to be known as the “Welsh Tune” were all simply ravishingly done – but unfortunately the quicker parts of the work turned to confusion all too readily, especially the central fugue of the work. It might have been better in this context had more deliberate, more rhythmically-pointed tempo been chosen in places (I have heard such performances, and if directed with enough focus and intensity they can work brilliantly). Which leads me to state that this was the work, I think, which most missed the absence of a conductor, the guiding hand and ear which would have enabled more clarity to the textures and a bit more shape to the overall design of the performance – in places I wanted keener attention to phrasing, and less reliance on speed (inappropriate in the cathedral’s potentially treacherous acoustic)…….

But it’s for the Farr work that this concert will be most readily remembered – one that I’m sure we won’t have heard the last of. I for one would welcome the chance to hear it again and enjoy those moments of wide-ranging intensity in the context of a beautifully-constructed whole.

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