Musica Sacra – Music, Mirrors and Bells

 

Musica Sacra. There is more than one festival of that name. But there is only one festival that immerses the visitor in a total experience… no sense is left untouched. The festival still reverberates with the 2008 appearance of Arvo Pärt.

On the 15th August, the Assumption of Mary, I was joined by my father James Lisney for a very special concert to mark the beginning of the Musica Sacra festival in Belgium. The festival’s home is Rosario, an oasis for reflection and rejuvenation with music at the centre of its philosophy.

Rosario

Rosario: a converted convent, home to music, poetry, reflection and rejuvenation

Guests are invited to stay in simple rooms with wooden floors and furniture – nothing in Rosario is surplus and yet I have spent the most comfortable nights of my life within its walls. Meals are taken in company at the long wooden table, either indoors with the aromas wafting through from the bustling kitchen or, in summer time, in the courtyard surrounded by nature. Only organic, fair-trade ingredients are allowed to cross the threshold into Rosario, where they are combined in delicious dishes to nourish both body and soul.

The opening concert of Musica Sacra took place in the chapel of a Capuchin monastery tucked away in a neighbouring village. The chapel itself remains largely unchanged since its founding of 1616 by the Arenberg family, a secret gem now hidden among the bustling cobbled streets of the town that has grown up around it. The Arenbergs were once one of the richest families in the Benelux countries – at their most prosperous the family’s land stretched unbroken all the way to Russia. Beneath the chapel where we performed is the crypt where nearly one hundred members of the Arenberg family lie entombed.

This concert exposed many significances, some intentional, and others even we had not planned or considered. In accordance with the religious sincerity of the event, applause was reserved until the end of the concert which proceeded unbroken between each musical offering.

Our programme began and ended with Arvo Pärt, in particular tribute to his attendance at the 2008 Musica Sacra festival. Für Alina was dedicated to a young 18 year old girl just setting off to pursue her studies in London. At the heart of the piece is simplicity, indeed it was designed to be playable by any pianist, regardless of technical advancement. It is particularly notable for its bell-like tolling, the first piece to showcase Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ style for which he became famous.

Tintinnabuli: from the latin tintinnabulum – bell

Benjamin Britten’s enigmatic 3rd Suite for Cello emerged out of the silence, with a deep tolling pizzicato on the open C string accompanying a simple melody whose narrow range and speech-like contour creates the sense of melancholy at the heart of Russian plainchant. At this exact moment the bells of surrounding churches began to sound their tribute to the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, their music filtering through the thick stone walls.

In this moment, everybody, of any religion or none at all, felt the presence of a higher being, or intention: the bells were tolling on the same note that underpinned the cello’s music – C.

The 3rd Suite concludes with the exposure of its central themes, that is, a collection of Russian folk tunes, taken from Tchaikovsky’s arrangements, and finally the Kontakion of the Russian liturgy. These references were Britten’s special tribute to his friend and the piece’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich. The Arenbergs’ ancient ties to Russia rang with silent significance from the crypt below.

Another English composer continued this programme: Sir John Tavener’s Pratirupa for solo piano held sway for thirty minutes fluctuating from celestial serenity to the deepest fires of violence piano and pianist could muster. Tavener, (like Musica Sacra) is interested in the exploration of many world religions, their differences and what unites them.

Pratirupa: Sanskrit for ‘reflection, likeness’

Finally, a return to Pärt and the familiar calm of Spiegel im Spiegel. The title means Mirrors in Mirrors and thus continued the theme of musical reflections.

The closing chord died away and one by one, audience members and performers surfaced from their respective reveries. The audience kindly applauded and stood to show their appreciation and we were presented with sunflowers by two children. It was at this moment that the low clouds parted and sunlight streamed through the dusty windows, gilding the chapel’s beauties and casting a warm glow across the congregation.

Relevant links:

James Lisney

Joy Lisney

Rosario

Musica Sacra

Music through the Ages

One of the many fascinating things about music is the complex web of influences, derivations and ideas that link even its most diverse manifestations. The exploration of just a single thread through history right up to the present day becomes an exercise in musical archaeology, enriching our understanding of the music from many perspectives.

This summer I have released my debut recording with Woodhouse Editions: Volume II of my father James Lisney’s Schubertreise project. (Click here for audio excerpts!) This concept harks back to a series of recitals in London’s Southbank Centre in 2001, in which the complete ‘journey’ of Schubert’s completed piano sonata movements were performed in a series of 18 concerts. The music of Schubert was programmed with works of other composers, sometimes complimentary in style and temperament and at other times chosen for their musical closeness. Schubertiads have been repeated in venues across Europe and this blossoming recording project seeks to reflect the spirit of spontaneity and exploration central to the original concept.

Volume II gathers numerous threads of the fabric of musical time, not least the father-daughter relationship we share as the Lisney Duo. Our partnership is a collusion of two musicians at different stages in their musical journeys, captured in the moment by this disc: I was nineteen at the time of the recording, still soaking up the plethora of opportunities and ideas which university offers, and my father James has thirty years of rich performing experience with many artists and in countless concert venues upon which to found his music making. Of course, he would be the first to say that he is still learning all the time!

The music chosen for this disc also exposes many other connections. Late Chopin forms the heart of this recording, pairing the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 1 with the Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 65. Chopin completed the Sonata in the winter of his years and the possibility of a link to Schubert’s great Wintereise cycle has been tentatively discussed since the Sonata’s earliest performances.  The powerful opening motif of the cello in Op. 65, which provides thematic focus for the entire sonata, vividly echoes the memorable figure that haunts the opening song of Winterreise, tolling in the piano at the end of each stanza of poetry. Furthermore, both Op. 65 and Winterreise were conceived during periods of great emotional upheaval for the composers – another telling parallel.

Continuing from Schubert and Chopin, we may follow two separate threads. The first travels along the musical heritage of a nation, with a journey through Polish history right up to Witold Lutoslawski, whose Grave (1981) finishes the disc. The other thread follows the path of musical influence most directly, leading first to Debussy, whose pianism and fluidity of harmonic language owe much to Chopin’s innovations. From here, our thread whirls through the disparate tapestry of 20th and 21st century music to a composer born in the Netherlands, who now makes his home in the hills of Gloucestershire. Jan Vriend  counts the music of Chopin and Debussy among his chief influences and in fact his music ties into our musical web even more tightly than might at first be apparent: Vriend composed JOY in 2011, directly inspired by a performance my father and I gave of the Chopin Cello Sonata. (You can read in more detail about the many significant features of JOY here).

As if that isn’t enough, one final musical link can draw all this together more completely: Lutoslawski’s Grave was composed in memoriam Stephan Jarocinski, a musicologist who specialised in the music of Debussy and Grave takes its thematic starting point from the forest scene of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Writing this has caused me to wonder where I will be on my musical journey in five, ten, or even twenty years time. What ideas and influences might inspire me, who and what might I come across as I experience life as a cellist? Might I even do some influencing of my own?

The more I explore music, the more tightly everything appears to be pulled together, but contrary to that old adage – ‘Its a small world’ – my perspective on the musical world is becoming ever richer.

Related Links:

James Lisney, pianist

Jan Vriend, composer

Woodhouse Editions

Audio excerpts from Schubertreise, Volume II

‘JOY’ – Jan Vriend (2011)

To have a piece of music written for you can be a burden of responsibility, or it can be supremely liberating. Jan Vriend’s JOY is certainly the latter and my affinity with the piece runs much more deeply than our shared name.

This music is the epitome of true unity between piano and cello. The colourful textures that emerge as the piece progresses are characterised by something beyond communication between the musicians. Sometimes Vriend makes great use of the contrast in timbres between cello and piano and engages the musicians in dialogue. For much of the piece, however, the parts seem to be borne from one intention, requiring a special unanimity between the players to create a variety of fascinating colours from the combination of the two instruments. Indeed, when I play JOY, more than most other music, I am playing both parts, in a heightened state of consciousness which is wholly personal but also the most honest communication of the music.

Honesty is at the core of JOY. It makes evident the human struggle for, well, ‘joy’ and takes the player and audience on this journey. The music is fundamentally melodic and its unselfconscious nature is a hallmark of Vriend’s style, which is both very individual and yet instinctive to play and hear.

The cello writing is challenging because of the sweeping range of the melodies, which often span more than two octaves. Once this technical challenge can be overcome, however, the trajectories and tone of the music is strikingly vocal.

https://joylisney.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/joy-1-14.mp3

The rising phrases of the opening section seem to betray a desperate longing for something altogether out of reach, and indeed this same urge returns throughout between excursions to various ‘tableaux’. The first is a passage that glistens with the glassiness of harmonics, a contrast with the richly scored opening, finishing with the unmistakeable sounds of wailing seagulls in the cello.

https://joylisney.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/joy-54-63.mp3

Then the piano takes over, leading us into a whirlwind of stormy virtuosity, punctuated by rapid pizzicato in the cello. Out of this chaos springs, like a glorious fountain, a quotation from Chopin’s Winter Wind etude. Jan Vriend’s tribute to Chopin is rooted in a supreme admiration of his music and also a reference to the fact that JOY was partly inspired by a performance of Chopin’s cello sonata op. 65.

At the centre of the piece, there is a still moment of reflection, which for me brings to mind the cello movement of Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin de temps. Pulsing chords in the piano and a long sustained melody in the cello put a stop to the energetic momentum that is characteristic of Vriend’s music. Soon, however, the music returns to the yearning figures of the opening from which the composer leads us into a strangely submerged passage in which the cello plays quarter-tones, the highly chromatic sounds between the notes! Finally the momentum builds to a furious climax, but it is quickly dissipated, and if you listen very carefully you might hear another quotation, this time thinly veiled and played by the cello, a lone voice still daring to whisper with the spirit of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

The musical extracts are from a live performance I gave in the Pittville Pump Room in Cheltenham with my father James Lisney. The full live recording can be found here.

We are releasing a studio recording of JOY along with works by Chopin and Lutoslawski in 2013 on Woodhouse Editions.