London International Festival of Exploratory Music

Wim Mertens Duo; Gavin Bryars Ensemble

King's Place, 8 November 2010 3 stars

Wim mertens Despite its broad and vague remit, the London International Festival of Exploratory Music – held at King's Place and now in its second year – has managed in each of its iterations to provide coherent and artistically interesting programmes. I managed to catch two of this year's 7 concerts, and I'm still rueful over missing what from all accounts was a stunning Terry Riley gig at the festival's head.

Of those two concerts – Wim Mertens in duo on the Thursday and Gavin Bryars with his ensemble on the Saturday – I most definitely enjoyed the latter more, though neither show could be said to have been especially stimulating in performance or indeed challenging in programme.

Mertens makes music split in allegiance between 1980s coffee table piano balladry on the one hand and (very) softly experimental Nymanesque minimalism on the other. More than once were the twinkly spectres of Christopher Cross and Phil Collins called up amidst rumbling and repetitious cross rhythms and blandly voiced arpeggios.

Playing piano and singing alongside a precise and unassuming Eric Robberecht on violin, Mertens ran through a programme of just under twenty pieces, including a thunderously demanded four-number encore. Much of the music came from his back catalogue of famous film scores and other mainstream successes (including, in the encore, one from Belly of an Architect), but now arranged for duo, with some other numbers (for example 'Zing'up') originating in more recent times. I am unable to give a more precise description of the items of the concert owing to the vague, gauche and uninteresting notes by which it was accompanied. These notes singularly failed to address specifically any piece on their stated programme, a programme that in any case was only loosely adhered to and abandoned entirely by the latter stages.

But, to the music. Though feeling a little queasy in the early numbers at the sight of yet another composer indulging his less than nimble hands, especially with some horrid missed accents and drastically uncoordinated downbeats occurring in the early stages, I have to say I warmed to the performance a little toward the close, finding something to admire in the twirling 6-5 patterns of one of the concluding numbers and being pleasantly riled up by some of the trancing hypnoses of clashing 5s against 4s and other felicitations of pattern in other pieces. I could take or leave some of the pastoral and light major key wanders, but overall the basic pattern of pungent, rhythmically framed theme – this sometimes augmented by Mertens’ obscure but emotive high head voice singing indecipherable lyrics – into a contrasting section before a repeat of the theme in various profiles, worked effectively enough, even if the tempi could have done with moving beyond the medium-to-fast spectrum to which they clove, and the dynamics to something other than their medium-to-loud limit.

Mertens' voice, after a shaky start of slipped intonations and badly-miked balance, proved the chief point of emotional contact throughout the performance. It even reminded me at times of Salif Keita. Yet it was not enough to rescue what was generally a rather dispiriting concert.

Gavin BryarsUnfortunately Mertens' wholly unhelpful concert notes were exceeded in redundancy by the programme for the Bryars, which, in addition to providing absolutely no discussion of the actual pieces on the programme, failed to provide any of the texts for the sung works. They seem to consist of a ruthless cut and paste from his Wikipedia page. Far from petty sniping, I would want to insist that these things – programmes, texts, introductions – in fact matter very much, and in this case proved a quite significant annoyance for many of the members of the audience I spoke to about the matter.

The situation, fortunately, was rectified to some extent by Bryars himself, who after remonstration in the break engagingly and without nonsense read out the texts and introduced all of the pieces in the second half, in some cases with ample scene setting.

The Bryars concert itself, in contrast to the Mertens, proved broadly satisfying, if a little cautious. Selections from the composer's repertoire of laude, both sung types and instrumentals (two Laude Dolçe and the more extended Lauda: The Flower of Friendship, which closed the concert), were contrasted with three 'Irish Madrigals' (JM Synge translations of Petrarchan poetry) and seven numbers from the Morrison Songbook, a set of madrigals originally written for the Hilliard Ensemble, now arranged anew for solo voice and group.

As has latterly been the composer's wont and as is hinted at by the generic disposition of the programme, every piece heard tonight, with only some internal variance, suggested an enriched early-Renaissance style more than it did anything more modern. That being the case, with some careful additions – notably the keening volume swell pedalled electric guitar of James Woodrow and occasional pulsing minimalist echoes – Bryars nevertheless suggests something of the modern, even just by way of a haunted and ghostly Renaissance. The guitar, particularly, though redolent to a degree of silvery viols heard through an echo chamber, was a well-worked contemporary addition to the otherwise broadly period line-up of viola, double bass, cello and voice.

Each work was performed with general alacrity, with evident modesty, and with no little beauty. Even if Bryars himself seemed a little rough around the edges in terms of precision, missing the occasional note as he did, like his music, his playing was sweetly delivered and graceful in aspect. Deserving of special praise is the tenor John Potter, he whose minor thirds were so mournful in the laude, his high notes so silky and yet so strong in the numbers from the Songbook, and his wide-ranging elegance of line and weight so prevalent throughout. Nick Cooper’s cello and Morgan Goff's viola provided tender support and sometimes deeply expressive lead throughout.

The general flow of supple and quiet modal lines in free flow over each other but given always in the utterance of a breath was rarely broken. This notwithstanding, I have to say that those pieces on which the restrained and striking sonorities of the music were given fuller rein to develop and intensify, as on the closing The Flower of Friendship, where compelling drones offset emotionally charged solos from viola, guitar and bass, with the guitar even breaking into continuous arpeggios at one point, proved the most interesting and engaging of the night.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Wim Mertens and Gavin Bryars

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