Early Music Vancouver Festival 2013

2014 Vancouver Early Music Festival
The Hand of Time: Concert 4 - Fragments for the End of Time

Featured Performers Benjamin Bagby, voice, harps, symphonia; Norbert Rodenkirchen, flutes, harp

Date and Venue 1 August, 2014, 8pm | Roy Barnett Hall, UBC

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

If the past is another country, as LP Hartley suggested, Benjamin Bagby must be its most intrepid explorer.  He ventures into the farther reaches of musical history with only the sketchiest of maps and a few pages of notes and returns with a traveller’s imaginative description of a world which might have been.

The year 1000 AD loomed as momentously in the 10th century as Y2K did for us.  More so in fact since it was not only the end of the entire world that was predicted but it was coupled with the Day of Judgement when the sinful would be cast down into ever-lasting hell-fire.  Terrifying descriptions could be found in the both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and in Church windows and paintings. The recently converted countries of Northern Europe had their own literature to hand in the grim myths of Ragnarok, the last battles of the Gods with the evil forces of the Giants and the complete destruction of the world.  Both apocalyptic visions  featured a pristine new world to come afterwards, but it is the utter destruction and the final  judgement that caught the imagination.

Working with texts from from the early 8th century to the 10th, from the days of Beowulf to the times of Charlemagne and the Icelandic Eddas, Bagby and Norbert Rodenkirchen have imagined a vanished world into existence. Ancient music notation was inexact, more like a cryptic memo than a clear guideline. Many of the texts are incomplete, pages having been lost or damaged with time. Often we can only guess at the meaning. Who or what were the fearsome Muspilli? Where and when were the Sequences sung? Even some of the instruments were reconstructed from fragments. A wealth of scholarship and expert knowledge lies behind the turning of what clues there are into a performance of power and beauty.

There were no bells and whistles in this show, no rolls of thunder, no trumpets, no flowing robes or rich costumes, just two plainly dressed members of the Sequentia ensemble with medieval instruments, Rodenkirchen on harp and flutes and Bagby with harp, symphonia (a sort of hurdy-gurdy) and voice. Yet their performance was enough to cause the audience to produce an audible exhalation of breath at the end of a piece. The drone of the symphonia and the high, elaborate flute surrounding Bagby’s distinctive singing style in “Iudicii signum” induced a hallucinatory aura to this Sybilline prophecy, once sung in cloisters in Aquitaine. Also memorable was the immeasurably bleak excerpt from Beowulf, “Thaer was swylcra fela” which describes the final days of a man who was the sole survivor of a disaster. Alcuin’s courtly “Summi regis archangele Michahel” following “Iudicii signum”came as something of a relief. It was only a brief respite though as the next and final piece, “A fellr austan um eitrdala,” the prophecy of another Seeress, the Volva, from the Old Icelandic Edda was nothing short of terrifying. The piercingly high, ethereal tones of the swan’s-bone flute floated over Bagby’s fierce delivery like a Valkyrie over a battle-ground.

The vocal pieces were interspersed with instrumental works played by Norbert Rodenkirchen on a variety of flutes, lightening the grimness of the vocal texts with elaborate variations and winding riffs on melodies from the old manuscripts.  Perhaps the most remarkable of all these entrancing pieces was "Occidentana," again played on the haunting swan’s bone flute.

Besides exceptional scholarship it takes consummate dramatic and musical art to bring such ancient and elusive works to life.  Bagby and Rodenkirchen succeed superbly.

© 2014 Elizabeth Paterson