Arcana at the Proms – Prom 70: Daniel Pioro gives the world premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s Horror vacui

Jonny Greenwood (bass guitar/tanpura), Daniel Pioro (violin), Nicolas Mangriel (tanpura), Katherine Tinker (piano), BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Hugh Brunt

Biber Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas No. 16 – Passacaglia in G minor
Penderecki Sinfonietta for strings, second movement Vivace
Greenwood Three Miniatures from Water – No. 3; 88 (No. 1)
Reich Pulse
Greenwood Horror vacui

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 10 September 2019 (late night Prom)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Mark Allan

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

Alongside his role as lead guitarist with Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood has a close relationship with the string orchestra. Detailing his love for the medium in the programme for this late night Prom, he explained his preference for live music over electronic or recorded alternatives, citing the living and breathing aspects of the instruments as his prime reason for using them.

Breathing into the stringed instruments became an aspect of his new piece, Horror vacui, written for violinist Daniel Pioro and an ensemble comprising string players from the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Arranged in a fan shape across the stage, the orchestra had the lowest sounds at the back in the form of eight double basses and twelve cellos, with ten violas just in front of those. That left just the 38 violins in front, each of the 68 instrumentalists having their own specific part.

Greenwood’s directions for conductor Hugh Brunt were unconventional, his arm often sweeping across the ensemble from left to right and back again so that each instrument knew when to come in and fade away. This created a powerful visual and aural effect, the string players’ bows rising and falling like a sound wave.

Greenwood explained how Horror vacui is the fear of empty space, usually in paintings. This was vividly captured not just from the dense orchestration but from Daniel Pioro’s superbly played solo violin part. With incredibly secure intonation he excelled in the pure upper register passages, the notes soaring effortlessly towards the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall. Beneath him the textures were always changing, sometimes secured by players blowing into their instruments, literally breathing life into them, or from deep-piled chords, some of which were huge blocks of consonant sound. Around 20 minutes in the biggest of these chords drew applause from the audience, most of whom thought the piece had finished there – and indeed it would have been a natural stopping point. There was still a substantial coda to follow, which ended in a pure C major with Pioro back up in the heights. The conventional end felt like a more obvious statement after Greenwood’s innovations earlier in the piece, and though beautiful felt tacked on to the end.

That said, Horror vacui is a very impressive and engaging piece of work – and here, with the orchestra under the leadership of the energetic Lesley Hatfield, it received the best possible performance.

We heard two other Greenwood pieces. The third of Three Miniatures from Water was perfect late night fayre, especially with the drones of two Indian tanpuras to enjoy, but ultimately was not long enough for pure indulgence. The shapes made by the smaller orchestra were pleasing to the ear – while the liquid torrents from solo pianist Katherine Tinker in the premiere of 88 (No.1) were harsher. The title reflects the number of keys on a modern grand piano, and Tinker surely used them all in the course of a virtuoso performance that built on watery influences from Debussy and Ravel.

Steve Reich’s Pulse transported us to the American plains. Written in thrall to Copland’s Appalachian Spring, this very approachable piece has all the Reich qualities of small, oft-repeated melodic cells and development, but also a warmth not lost on the ensemble here. Greenwood himself played bass guitar but it was the higher riff from the violins at the start of the piece that made a lasting impression.

The inclusion of Biber and Penderecki at the start was helpful. The former ensured we could adjust to the sound of a solo violin in the big space of the Royal Albert Hall, as well as the idea of a minimalist approach in the composer’s development of a relatively small chord sequence. That it comes from the early Baroque period, late 17th century, is startling. Penderecki, a friend and close musical ally of Greenwood’s, was present in the second movement of his Sinfonietta. Energetically played here, it is however wholly under the influence of Bartók in its musical language and scoring.

This was a stimulating concert with an attentive audience. A brief note should be made about timekeeping, however, as due to the required stage changes, no matter how efficiently done, this Prom did not finish until 11:55pm. While that is unquestionably value for money, it did inevitably lead to audience members having to leave half way through or even before the main work in order not to miss their last transport options of the evening. The anxiety this can breed is contagious and can affect the whole evening, not just for the leavers but those around them. It would surely have been beneficial for an earlier item in the program to have been omitted to avoid this, or for the concert to start at 10pm as Late Night Proms used to do. I myself had to leave Greenwood’s piece before the finish, as staying on would have landed me with a £70 cab fare and an extremely late night. BBC Sounds was on hand to help with the closing minutes, naturally – but it’s something for the BBC to consider in future.

You can watch this concert in a recording on BBC4 on Friday 13 September. Rehearsal clips for Horror vacui on the BBC website

Wigmore Mondays – Rachel Podger, Marcin Świątkiewicz and David Miller – Biber Mystery Sonatas

Photo (c) Jonas Sacks

Rachel Podger (violin), Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord, organ), David Miller (theorbo) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 14 December 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 6 January 2016


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of some of the music in this concert. Rachel Podger has in fact recorded this music but it is not currently available for streaming – so here is a version led by violinist Andrew Manze:

If you particularly want to hear Rachel in action – along with excerpts from some of her other recordings for Channel Classics – this page on her website provides more audio

What’s the music?

Biber: Mystery Sonatas (c1674):

Sonata No. 1 in D minor ‘The Annunciation’ (6 minutes)

Sonata No. 3 in B minor ‘The Nativity’ (7 minutes)

Sonata No. 9 in A minor ‘Jesus Carries the Cross’ (8 minutes)

Sonata No. 10 in G minor ‘The Crucifixion’ (9 minutes)

Sonata No. 11 in G major ‘The Resurrection’ (9 minutes)

Passacaglia in G minor (8 minutes)

What about the music?

If you don’t know much about the music of Biber yet like what you have heard from the 17th century then you really are in for a treat.

Performance verdict

The programming of the Wigmore Hall’s Monday lunchtime series often gets deserved plaudits, but to have this set of sonatas on the last of the concerts before the Christmas break was an inspired choice. In Rachel Podger the sonatas have their ideal vehicle, for she is a charismatic performer who clearly just loves playing the violin. In Marcin Świątkiewicz and David Miller she had the ideal support, the two very sensitive with the levels of their accompaniment, supplying light and shade but also subtle virtuosity. Świątkiewicz moved effortlessly between a small organ and the harpsichord, mindful of the colour he was making with each, and when he held the long notes on the organ as a descriptive aid (for instance giving an idea of the echo in Jesus’ tomb) the purity of tone was striking. Miller was a very tasteful presence on theorbo, this fascinating instrument always great to watch live but making a lovely mellow sound too.

Yet most eyes were on Podger, who played this music on four different violins with really impressive command not just of the notes and their intonation, but also of the characterisation. We lived the story in a very profound way, the abject despair of the crucifixion and burial only too obvious – but in the same way the portrayal of the resurrection, where minor key darkness gives way to major key light – was a radiant moment, the wide open sound a joy to behold.

From there it was on to the solo Passacaglia, and here it was as though Podger was on her own in the room, completely lost in the four note sequence that obsessively repeats – but finding all the variations in tone colour, attack, vibrato and rhythm that make this music consistently interesting. In this way she capped a very fine concert.

What should I listen out for?

First of all make sure you listen to the Radio 3 announcement from the beginning, and Rachel’s own introduction at 9:57 – they make the ideal preface to the music you hear, and the four instruments she uses to play it. As for Biber’s music:

No.1 The Annunciation (violin normally tuned)

The first of the suites is based on the following bible verse: Luke 1: 26-33 In Nazareth, the angel Gabriel riding on a cloud tells the Virgin Mary she is to have a child.

2:02 – a long low note from the chamber organ starts the Praeludium of this suite, where the violin becomes increasingly animated. Soon this leads into an aria allegro (4:13), where after a quick introduction from the organ the violin takes the lead in a gentle dance. But soon the dance becomes more energetic as the violin spins out variations on the melody. Then the organ holds a long note (6:49) over which the violin ducks and dives – and where the theorbo is more audible. Here it is as though the prophecy is being made.

No.3 The Nativity

Luke 2: 6-20 Surrounded by farm animals, Mary shows Jesus to two shepherds. The angel presides.

14:05 – a solemn though reverent beginning to this sonata, where the harpsichord can be heard elaborating in the background. Then from 15:43 the chamber organ and theorbo can be heard in a mellow accompaniment to the relatively shrill violin. At 17:31 the triple time Courante begins, thought to be set in this way to convey the rocking movements of Jesus’ cradle. At 19:09 the music slows considerably, the organ now an extremely slow accompanist – and another thoughtful, reverent passage brings the Nativity vision to a close.

No 9 Jesus Carries the Cross

Luke 23: 26-32 Jesus falls and Simon the Cyrenian is forced to help by a Roman with a stick while a daughter of Jerusalem ululates.

22:59 – this is a much more obviously grief-stricken piece, a sonata of mourning depicting a woman wailing with grief. The slow introduction depicts this from the outset, and from 24:28 the music becomes twisted. Then the mood softens, the soft strumming of the theorbo again evident against the cool sound of the organ – before Podger again speeds up, dominating the exchanges. Finally an organ improvisation brings in something of a coda 29:30.

No 10 The Crucifixion

Luke 23: 33-46 Jesus dies before three female onlookers.

32:21 – a real tour de force of word painting here, as Biber conjures up visions of Christ’s crucifixion. He does this through the hammering of nails into the coffin (e.g.33:07 in the Praeludium from violin and harpsichord), and then, after a dance based aria and some lively variations, through a violent earthquake, with all three instruments generating stunning power (40:14). The theorbo offers pointed support too, and is especially audible at 36:56.

No 11 The Resurrection

Luke 24: 1-12 Jesus bursts from the sepulchre, the cross now on his flag, surprising the guard and his cowering accomplice.

43:24 – the violin has a very unusual tuning for this sonata, creating a ‘cross’ – wholly appropriate given the subject matter! It is here that the music becomes free of the shackles of the minor key. First there is a slow introduction, where the sonorous octaves on the organ represent the echoes of the tomb. Then there is a quotation of the plainsong hymn Surrexit Christus hodie (46:05) from the organ, and a series of variations on this theme. The closing Adagio (from 50:46) is soft and rather beautiful, with the violin double stopping (playing more than one note at once). The theorbo is also more prominent here.

Passacaglia (violin normally tuned)

A guardian angel guides a child by the hand.

54:13 – the Passacaglia is an extraordinary bit of writing for solo violin, based on a sequence of just four notes the violin plays at the beginning. A sequence of 64 variations on this unfolds, becoming ever more intense as it progresses (from 58:15 for instance) until a rapt finish at 1:02:30.

Further listening

Biber could be regarded as being a slightly earlier example of the Baroque period. Fast forward just a couple of decades and you have quite a lot of music that has either become associated with Christmas or is Christmas-themed – so this disc of seasonal concertos by The English Concert and Trevor Pinnock is a wholly appropriate next port of call: