by Rachel Beaumont

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Barriers dropped: Gerald Barry and the BBC Singers at the Barbican

Music by Gerald Barry
BBC Singers
St Giles’ Cripplegate
Unreserved, £10
4 March 2020
Barbican page

O Lord, how vain
The Coming of Winter
O Tannenbaum
Long Time
Schott & Sons, Mainz

This short programme of short a capella works by Gerald Barry interestingly demonstrates the variety of his muse – not something I’ve always found evident in his longer works. The programme as a whole and particularly the final work also made me realise that an implicit assumption I have, over the eternal irony of his music, may not be as accurate as I’ve thought. So in all a very valuable programme, and valiantly performed by the BBC Singers – though sadly not well attended.

The four first works in the programme span a period from 1995 to 2013 and each delighted me in one way or the other. O Lord, how vain, the earliest work in the programme, surprised off the bat with its commitment to textual clarity. The declamation of the 16th-century source text mingles with complex part writing (reminiscent of some of the writing for quartet in Alice’s Adventures Under Ground) and extensive tuneful, virtuoso whistling for the whole choir that generates a very pleasing effect.

Long Time shares a similar declaratory dedication. It sets the opening paragraphs of Proust around regeneratively inventive use of the C major scale: there is not a single non-diatonic note and yet the piece’s seven minutes feel full of invention. I feel I’m cheating slightly, as in a short interview with Barry himself before the performance he mentioned that the C major framework came naturally but seemed to allow a certain clarity the text’s stasis between sleep and non-sleep – but I buy it.

The two shortest pieces, The Coming of Winter and O Tannnenbaum, each touch on the mock anger – or what I’ve always thought of as mock anger – that’s a common thread through Barry. In different ways in their concise durations they call for a braying vocal strength on which the BBC Singers ably let rip.

But the piece that most made me most re-think was Schott & Sons, Mainz, which uses extracts from Beethoven’s letters to his publisher from the last years of his life. A wild bass solo, performed by Jimmy Holliday, has the brutal virtuosity familiar from Barry’s operas (again, it was nice to hear Barry talk in the performance of the divinity he found in vocal virtuosos), while the chorus writing has the complexity and flibbertigibbet enunciation of the other works on the programme. The text itself seems a gift to Barry’s humour, with its accidental references to Stockhausen and Darmstadt, and the opportunity to sing out Beethoven’s musical corrections to his errant publisher.

In the context of these jokes I was troubled at many points by the bass solo’s recourse to a throated shouting. Is this mockery of the deaf Beethoven? With the barrier of the perpetual irony that I assumed was in place there seemed no other explanation. But this can’t be right: why would you mock such an illness, such a person, especially if you’re as entranced by Beethoven as Barry? Thinking further I wondered that maybe part of my discomfort and assumption of irony is over a worry that Beethoven probably did shout. How frustrating, how cruel that must have been. This switch within me, combined with the final letters’ pleas for wine, set piteously, ragingly, matter-of-factly by Barry, achieved what few other works of his have for me: an emotional investment, and a troubled sadness.

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