THE rapid emergence of St John the Evangelist, Iffley Road, in Oxford, as a highly versatile venue for classical music has been one of the most satisfying developments in the city’s blossoming musical scene.
Vocal and choral, not least sacred choral, repertoire figures prominently in its programme. It has offered a home to the Oxford Bach Choir; the expert consort Commotio (including, in June, a celebration of women composers); the ensemble Choros, in Bach’s St John Passion; and the Thame Chamber Choir. It is equally noted for international instrumental recitals, and sometimes hosts several events in one week.
The latest concert was devoted entirely to a series of sacred works by the Swiss violinist and composer Paul Giger (born 1952). Giger, as all his works heard here revealed, is a violinist of extraordinary depth and insight; there is a profundity in his playing, and in his compositions — a philosophy, in fact — which is endlessly probing, questing, and exploring. His music poses questions as much as it makes statements. His use of harmonics, double-stopping, portamento, alluring semitones, elusive quarter tones, and reflective rubato all reveal an artist of both delicacy and intensity.
The effect is indeed mesmerising: haunting and enchantingly expressive, a characteristic of all the vocal and choral works sung here. Both this and the final work, O Ignis, drawing on an antiphon of Hildegard of Bingen, seemed, to my taste, perhaps excessively drawn out. At times, one wanted to cry out, “More!” and, at others, “Less!”
The audience, regrettably, received no texts or translations. Thus, when David James, the magnificent countertenor formerly of the Hilliard Ensemble, sang two highly intense solos, the subtle interplay of the attentive harpsichordist (Marie-Louise Dähler), violin, and stunning percussion (a wealth of gongs, suspended cymbals, and tiny bells) rather stole from the solo, whose exquisite German was not intelligible. What resulted was a kind of beautifully intoned vocalise rather than an enticing text.
Other movements, featuring the splendidly rehearsed vOx Chamber Choir, an Oxford ensemble capably and assuredly directed by David Crown, worked wonders. In Media Vita in Morte Sumus, Giger leads us on a journey, from the mesmerising and atmospheric — sometimes suggesting an Indian rag — to some dramatic outbursts, not least of some superb high sopranos. The piece unfolds like a beguiling narrative: we were drawn in, and gripped.
O Ignis, employing all the forces available, may not quite yield the “supernova of musical activity” which Giger suggests, but includes subtly enlarging string intervals, then captivating violin slides abetted by nudging high bells, which urge the chorus on. There was some first-rate singing. The choir men produced a beautifully modulated pianissimo, and then the upper voices made the running, buoyed up by alluring and increasingly passionate descanting by violin, entrancing parallellings between soprano and alto, and a notably impressive, pleading soprano solo, which rose amid the chorus to underwrite the work’s increasingly awesome feel.
Here and there, the violin rasps to unnerving effect. Elsewhere, it adds an uplifting sensation, like birdsong. The text of the choral hymn is from Hildegard’s “O ignis Spiritus paracliti”, which grows to the forceful “custodi eos qui carcerati sunt ab inimico et solve ligatos quos divina vis salvare vult” (“Guard those who are imprisoned. . .”). To include all ten stanzas may have seemed desirable, even essential, but the consequent repetitions proved a mite ponderous; but vOx’s declamation, impressively committed and sensitive, could not be faulted.
It was, in fact, the central piece for the violin and choir, Tropus, a delightfully tuneful, folksy dance, with the violin mimicking itself low down, then an octave higher, which fired the imagination. The choir proceeded from the west end of the church. Prominent here was a moving plainchant, dating from just before the first millennium and stemming from the Swiss monastery of St Gallen. The violin and harpsichord indulge in exhilarating interplay; while the extreme pianissimo with which the violin rounds off seems to be a characteristic of Giger’s writing. (This is most evident in the first piece, where he holds the dying note till it becomes nothing.)
The hero of this unusual recital was undoubtedly the outstandingly skilled Swiss percussionist, Pudi Lehmann. With a vast array of variously sized gongs, the buk (traditional Korean drum), the hang (an original Swiss instrument), the frame drum, the hugely affecting “conch” horn, plus a clutch of charmingly delicate, lovingly played Tibetan bowls, all lightly patted, forcibly struck, or nursed by different (sometimes muffled) sticks, Lehmann produced an extraordinary wealth of haunting sounds and pitches.
Such was his mastery — and astonishing memory for fine detail — that he never overbore instruments or voices, but conjured up miraculous contrasts, sometimes whispering, often soothing, and intermittently angry and explosive. It was a virtuosity that matched even that of the violin; and Giger’s writing for these extremely mysterious instruments yielded rich and sonorous results in performance.
Paul Giger will perform his solo work Chartres as part of an ongoing festival at Chartres Cathedral on 11 October. https://paul-giger.ch