News Column

Purity and honesty from an extraordinary nun

August 15, 2014

Michael Tumelty; KEITH BRUCE; Michael Tumelty; KEITH BRUCE

Sister Marie Keyrouz/l'Ensemble de la Paix, Greyfriars Kirk

AND still they turn up. Before 5pm on Wednesday, the queue for the daily 5.45pm Greyfriars Kirk Festival concert was snaking down from the Kirk towards the main road. By 5.45pm, the place was stuffed and there was a rather extraordinary buzz of anticipation. For what? Well ... er ... for a nun, actually. Not, I hasten to add, the Singing Nun, and if you're between 50 and 60, you'll know to whom I refer.

No, this crowd was not for the Singing Nun, but for a nun who sings. Sister Marie Keyrouz, a Lebanese nun, musicologist and church singer, whose repertoire is drawn from the fruits of her researches into the music of the earliest Christian churches, has been here before.

But she is so unique that her return on Wednesday, with her Ensemble of Peace - six singers and no instruments - furnished a glorious platform from which to hear music from the very beginnings of what we might call, laughably, now, in a desperate world, Western civilisation and its eastern origins. Look at the great sources of this music, including Syria. From this contemporary platform we can gaze back almost 2,000 years and hear how and where it began.

The programme layout was difficult to follow - it lacked clarity and succinctness - but that nun's voice, soaring reverentially in chants, hymns, celebrations and contemplations - now rhapsodic, now ecstatic and impassioned, now subdued to intimacy over the constant pedal point provided by her six male voices, and always with a florid, Eastern tinge to its melody - sang to the hearts of its listeners. It was alluring and magical in its purity and honesty.

War Requiem

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It seems more recently, but apparently it is a decade since Britten's great scoring of the Latin Mass and the poetry of Wilfred Owen was performed at the Edinburgh Festival. Whatever the gap, it would have been an omission had it not appeared in Jonathan Mills' final First World War centenary-marking programme.

Of course there was a very different group of lads in the NYCoS National Boys Choir, who sang it last time, and the Festival Chorus has done a fair bit of growing up over the past 10 years as well, but more of them anon.

Britten's War Requiem is great music at least partly because it is a careful schematic success. The nationality of the soloists was broadly adhered to here: soprano Albina Shagimuratova from Tashkent (in Uzbekistan these days, but who knows the ambition of Vladimir Putin?), English tenor Toby Spence and German baritone Matthias Goerne.

The men perform the poetry, supported by a chamber ensemble; the soprano, chorus and boys sing the Mass, but the ingredients become increasingly intermingled and overlap as the narrative unfolds.

Sir Andrew Davis was alive to every detail of that, both in the singing and the playing of the Philharmonia, almost, dare I say, to the detriment of the wider canvas at times, but oh, the glory of these details. Goerne's was my favourite voice on stage but the most moving moment came as the choir's "Lacrimosa" paved the way for the soprano's second solo and Spence's rendition of "Futility".

And of that trio, it was the chorus that made the night. Chorusmaster Christopher Bell can be as proud of them as he is of the Boys Choir.

Artemis Quartet

Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

The Berlin-based Artemis Quartet perform standing up (the cellist sits on a plinth so he can communicate eye-to-eye with his colleagues). Does it make any difference? For string ensembles and chamber groups, standing up has become visual code for engaged, youthful, sparky playing. In some cases the sound doesn't match the image; with the Artemis, it most certainly does.

The quartet was established in 1989 and has had several personnel changes since, including the recent addition of Latvian violinist Vineta Sareika as leader. All four members share an airy, unshowy virtuosity: nothing they do is ponderous. Could I recognise their sound in a line-up of other good young string quartets? Possibly not, but that's in no way to diminish their skill or commitment.

Above all they're known for Beethoven, but played none of his music here. Instead they opened with Mozart: the String Quartet in G major K387 was light, luminous and brimming with energy. In Bartok's Third String Quartet their approach was fast and furious. Not a note was out of place - the delivery was almost too clean for such gritty, gutsy music.

We had the luxury of hearing the first movement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden twice when Sareika snapped a string and had no option but to leave the stage and mend it.

She returned with composure intact and the second hearing underlined just how meticulous the quartet's preparation must be: every phrase was recreated with the same acute nuances.

Overall, their performance was full of crisp rhythms and brisk tempos. Schubert's sorrow was bracing rather than all-engulfing and inconsolable. Whether that's enough depends on each listener's appetite for anguish. For me, it was all just a shade too bright.

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Source: Herald, The (Scotland)

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