Rafal Augustyn: Symphony of Hymns
The afternoon concert ran on much longer than anticipated – I only had half an hour before the next one began, and allowing ten minutes to overshoot the Filharmonia and get lost, I barely made it. At the door I was asked to leave my coat and bag in the cloakroom and in the rush forgot to extract my programme book. So not only am I writing review notes for the most substantial première of my time here sans food and drink, I am also without any of the information painstakingly transcribed by the Festival organisers for people like me. Damn.
It turns out this is a big piece, by any any measure. It clocks in at 100 minutes; requires forces of more than 170, including two solo singers, electronics and solo flugelhorn; sets texts from 20 sources by 17 authors in five languages; and took its composer two decades to write. For all its scale, what is perhaps most impressive about the work however is that across these dimensions Augustyn has written a score that is contiually inventive and enjoyable. Nevertheless, it is an exhausting listen, and several members of the audience ran out of stamina before the end, by which time almost the full gamut of orchestral technique – bar outright sonorism, ironically – had been run.
The first of the three movements is the most monumental, a continuous flow and sway of colours. It ends with a simple hocketing line between the two soprano soloists, that begins out of phase and moves into unison, setting words from Thomas T. Andrews’ A Greenwich Palimpsest:
Over the water the echoes glide
light on light, flashing before and behind
like ripples, time on time, in a moment
and all is gone
to the far edge of primordial time.
‘Light’ is the symphony’s main theme, but Augustyn does not restrict the imagery or symbolism attached to this one word. In the first movement, light is life-giving, the light of nature; in the second it is firelight – amorous, apocalyptic, cleansing and destructive; in the final movement the light is “the dawn of a new day and the inner, mystical life”. With such a plethora of themes it is no wonder that Augustyn’s piece swelled from the work planned to take “a year or two to complete” to one that occupied him for 20. It is also little wonder that such various musical ground is covered: the Reichian phasing hockets described above were for local detail only, and hardly seemed typical. As a whole, the work has that broad sweeping feel of neo-Romanticism that one might expect from a contemporary Polish symphonist, although it features none of Górecki’s direct simplicity, or Penderecki’s gloomy ponderousness. It does however, as both these composers’ works do themselves, continually blur the line between orchestration and form. The clearest example of this is in the very opening of the work, in which single notes are passed around the percussion in a stark Klangfärbenmelodie; here the sole interest is timbral, but the momentum that is born gradually spreads across the orchestra, until it grows into a full extended introduction into the choir’s first entry. Melody and harmony are present, but not discernible as such; more important is a lilting shifting of colours that tumbles the music forward.
But it remains a monster of a work: I left feeling that for all its invention and bravery, it would have benefitted from some judicious editing, from concept to execution. It was greeted with warm applause and roars of approval – but almost all of these that I could make out came from the stage, not the stalls. Many of us, having been going non-stop for almost 5 hours by this point, were simply relieved to be out in the cold air.
After taking a breather yourself, please continue with Part IV here.