Review: Berio’s Sequenza II, Vasks’ Plainscapes, and Ives’ Celestial Country

An ambitious and expectation-defying programme of Berio, Vasks and Ives.

The audience reception was warm and enthusiastic for a breathtaking performance from
the Latvian Radio Choir.

I normally pen, draft and sometimes even publish a review as soon as I possibly can after the performance. But for the second time in Monte Carlo, I've taken a moment to reflect on what I've heard before reaching for the keyboard.

The audience

That's because many of the programmes here have had a surprising, if sometimes indecipherable, narrative underpinning them. I understand that composer and festival artistic director Mark Monnet has put together concerts based on works he wants to introduce to Festival-goers. then sought performers and then sighted the event in a suitable intriguing venue.

I'm not entirely sure whether that has been the approach for this concert (or the ones I've attended) but understanding that strategy has prompted me to reflect on what I'm listening and, more importantly, why.

The music of Charles Ives – relatively unknown in classical music circles on the Riveria as far as I can glean – is something Mark Monnet was keen to introduce. That in itself is a big leap for an audience to take – committing to listening to a piece of music by a composer they haven't necessarily heard of before. When the unfamiliar work is paired with a Berio Sequenza, then you'd be forgiven for assuming no-one would turn up.

Not the case, as it turned out. Save for a few seats around me (I'm reassured it wasn't a personal slight), the cavernous wood-panelled conference hall at the Musee Oceanographic was filled to capacity.

Berio Sequenza II

The Berio Sequenzas are on the perimeter of my uncomfortable zone, but hearing number 6 for harp at the beginning of the concert helped focus my mind. A short work consisting of a series of intense splashes of sound, linked by an as yet undiscernible narrative. But there was drama and intrigue aplenty. Berio is arresting. Maybe that was the point. 

Pēteris Vasks' Plainscapes

A performance of Pēteris Vasks' Plainscapes followed, given by the remarkable Latvian Radio Choir stole the show. Vasks' like that of Ives in Celestial Country that followed, combines a rich choral sound with chamber instrumentation, meaning the works are dominated with a human feel, accented with lean string textures.

Plainscapes is a deceptive work. It teeters on the brink of over-sentimentality at the start, uggesting there isn't much developmental substance to it. But if you're into your storytelling structures, then you'll know that to move from a scene-setter to a narrative requires story and plot, ideally with a point of dramatic transformation too.

Vasks plays with the new listener in this piece, painstakingly building a layer upon layer tricking you into thinking this isn't really going anywhere. Before long a defiant community has seemingly risen up, rendering an exquisite point of climax in a glossy vocal glissando. When the original material returns, there's a sense of closure. To me, that says we have been on a journey after all.

Charles Ives' The Celestial Country

I found The Celestial Country bewildering. I spent a lot of the time trying to work out where Ives fitted into the noddy timeline of musical language I cling onto in my head when I'm attending a concert. Was he orthodox or was he scatter-gun in his ideas and output? Or is it that he was highly imitative of the likes of Verdi, Mendelssoh, or even Elgar or Hubert Parry?

If there is a certainty I can put my finger on with Ives at this stage in my exposure to his output, its that the composer is a master at writing for a chorus. The Latvian Radio Choir blissful ensemble work held my attention throughout. Any lesser chorus could have made a first listen to the work a bit of a long and drawn-out affair. In particular, the legato work in the sopranos and altos at the beginning of the third movement quartet was breathtaking. When the chorus reaches a climax, say in the finale, the powerful communal effect on the listener is similar to that in Vasks' Plainscapes.

There was an awkwardness to the staging of The Celestial Country which saw soloists, both vocal and instrumental, stepping forward for individual movements throughout. By the time we reached the finale (the only movement for which two trumpets were called), there was a feeling as though we were watching a talent show, waiting for each competing person to take up their positions. 

Even so, the applause for what would have been a totally unfamiliar work in these parts was unequivocally warm and enthusiastic. 

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