A new terrible beauty is born.

Alan Howard


It's not often a mix of art-forms works. Either each strand is bland or the strongest one chokes the others. But this is an inspired act by Spitalfields Festival (and much better than off-the-peg, on-tour-anyway programming); a fifty-minute piece incorporating four short 'Fizzles' (the author's term) by Samuel Beckett interspersed by Alec Roth's music, which combines the two strengths of Harry Christophers' choral ensemble The Sixteen: early and modern music. Roth's score seems to move from early to contemporary, his chorus almost entirely wordless though approaching the title words in later sections.

Conducted by a dressed-down Christophers, The Sixteen enter looking as if they might approach and ask us to spare a penny (presumably to make them the Seventeen), but stand at the sides performing Roth's score faultlessly, beautifully and apparently effortlessly. It relates various ways to Beckett's pieces; the rhythm of Howards' final words in the first section is picked up by the voices, and varied before returning in legato beauty and being speeded.

The energetic end of the second Beckett piece moves into a contrastingly smooth melancholy. Then, as the vocalisations of 'old earth' appear, there's a sympathy that might be consolatory, given the comparative peace of the final Beckett section.

Beckett's themes recall several of his plays - there's the confluence of birth and death found in Waiting for Godot or the striking opening of A Piece of Monologue, "Birth was the death of him." And Not I's fear of identity. They are given colour by the symphonic scale of Howard's voice, its sudden shifts of pitch and density, the stretching of vowels, or curdling of tone. This richness and technique is never empty or a cover for obscurity. The facial muscles seem to listen to the words the mouth is speaking, as they do to the music, or the third, pre-recorded Fizzle.

Finally there's a momentary smile, soon dashed but a sign of, at least, something beyond the opening disgust and hatred. It should all, of course, be recorded. And, with the last of the four performances today, it should if at all possible be experienced live.

Timothy Ramsden

Reviewsgate, 15.6.2012.

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