Kokoro, Burton Bradstock, Artsreach

artofKokoroAS part of the current Artsreach season, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music ensemble Kokoro (a Japanese word meaning “heart”) has been touring the south and south west with a series of exhilarating programmes.

Friday night at the village hall at Burton Bradstock was no exception, featuring music by three 20th century greats – Stravinsky, Bartok and Messiaen. Not easy company for a Friday night perhaps, and three very different pieces, but, with the help of some excellent programme notes and eloquent, informative introductions by Kokoro’s artistic advisor Mark Forkgen, the concert was accessible, stimulating and, ultimately, immensely moving.

The evening opened with Stravinsky’s Suite from The Soldiers’ Tale.  Originally written in 1918 as a theatre piece, the composer later condensed the work to form a suite in five movements.  Stravinsky’s eclectic instrumentation was similarly reduced from its initial orchestration (violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion) to a trio for violin, clarinet and piano.  The result, in the hands of Mark Forkgen (piano), Kate Turnbull (violin) and Elizabeth Drew (clarinet) was a full of freshness and rhythmic vitality.  The re-orchestration was ingenious, providing us with a surprisingly varied range of sounds, the reduced forces employed enabling the timbres and textures of the music to come across with perhaps a greater clarity than they might have done in the original.

There was a sparkling percussiveness about much of the playing too, which added to the excitement –the spikey repeated motif in the second movement (Le violin du Soldat) being particularly haunting, while the insistent and almost threatening 1-2-3 in the middle section of the fifth movement (Tango-Valse-Rag) created a real sense of foreboding – alas there was to be no happy ending for the unfortunate soldier.

By comparison, the Bartok Romanian Dances that followed were almost easy listening.  In a new arrangement by Kokoro’s composer-in-residence Hywel Davies, cellist Lionel Handy joined the trio adding fresh tone colour to the ensemble from the word go. Originally written in 1915, Bartok’s dances are both simple and direct – something that Davies adhered to in his arrangements, which were clear and uncluttered, and, incidentally, deliberately scored for the same ensemble as the Messiaen.

The use of pizzicato strings in the second movement (Braul- Sash Dance) for example was quite charming, while the musical effect of a book being carefully placed over the lower strings of the piano to accompany the long clarinet solo that followed was both unexpected and extraordinarily successful.  Later movements had more than a touch of the middle east about them too, the six dances concluding with a particularly gutsy Aprozo (Fast Dance) – great fun!

Written while being held in a German POW camp, and inspired by words from the Book of Revelation, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was premiered to an audience of guards and fellow prisoners in 1941.  The composer later recalled “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”

I wonder what he might have said about Friday night.  I have attended a good number of concerts where the music has touched my heart, but few where I can honestly declare that it has touched my soul.

Yet Friday’s music did just that.  There was gentleness and strength and, above all, a profound sense of timelessness in a performance where, alongside passages of breathless excitement, the Dance of Fury for example, silence and absolute stillness were an integral part of the overall experience.   Although the whole piece was remarkable both in terms of its composition and its execution, there were moments and movements of sheer perfection.

I am thinking here of the intense and often astringent chords on the piano, such as we heard in the Vocalise for the Angel, not knowing what chord was going to come next, but, on hearing it, knowing it was just right, or, as in the Abyss of the Birds, where the controlled phrasing and extraordinary beauty of the solo clarinet, beginning almost imperceptibly at times, was to become a personal prayer.

And then there were the two movements featuring the solo strings: Praise to the Eternity of Jesus with its rich chords on the piano over which the cello played its long, long elegy and through which the audience sat enthralled; and the final movement, Praise to the Immortality of Jesus, with its expansive, rising solo violin writing, again over piano chords, representing the ascent to Paradise.  Quartet for the End of Time must rank as one of the most deeply felt pieces ever penned.

Kokoro played it with intensity and matchless sensitivity, without affectation or ostentation, simply letting the music speak for itself.


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