Sansara & Fretwork: Pärt & White

Arvo Pärt & Robert White
Sansara & Fretwork
St John’s, Smith Square, 14 April 2022

For many years, St John’s, Smith Square has been the musical place to be in the run-up to Easter. This year’s Easter Festival was no exception. The seven-day event included regulars such as Polyphony, in their traditional Good Friday Passion, alongside the usual focus on other early music performances. The first two events rather countered that focus with the 1915 Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil opening the festival followed by Dupré’s 1931 Le Chemin de la Croix for organ. Another was the concert by the vocal group Sansara and the viol consort Fretwork, reviewed here, which contrasted music by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt with Robert Wight’s Lamentations à 5.

The bulk of the concert was devoted to music by Arvo Pärt, opening with his well-known 1977/92 Fratres in a very effective arrangement by Richard Boothby for the five viols of Fretwork. Starting with the delicate little repeated motif that punctuates the piece, the complex mathematics of his tintinnabuli style that underly the composition were subsumed within an eloquent whole. It was followed by the short 1963 pre-tintinnabuli piece Solfeggio, the deconstructed C-major scale shared among the singers of Sansara performing from the rear of the hall, and the continuous gently rocking movement of Summa, the latter also an arrangement by Richard Boothby, as was the key Arvo Pärt work of the evening, the 1985 Stabat Mater.

The reflective mood of the concert was slightly disrupted by a squeaky stage door hinge as the three singers of Sansara joined three of the Fretwork viols for the 25′ Stabat Mater. The instrumental opening, built on ‘dying fall’ motifs, sets the sombre tone. The mind-boggling mathematical and proportional structure of the piece was again subsumed into the sound of the music itself, the gently unfolding melodic line punctuated by three agitated instrumental interludes. A most moving performance, although I could have done without the mobile phone that accompanied the words “Let me share with thee His pain”. It was directed by Tom Herring sitting unobtrusively at the front of the six performers.

It was followed by the Lamentations à 5 by Robert White (c1538-74), one of the masterpieces of the English Renaissance. The piece takes pride of place in the 1580 Robert Dow Partbooks, with Dow adding the comment that “the words of the weeping prophet do not sound as sad as the music”. This sensitive and musical performance of the subdued piece did it full justice. Another segue led straight into the concluding Pärt Da Pacem Domine. It was composed in memory of the victims of the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and is performed annually to commemorate the victims. The meditative prayer for peace avoided the complex rhythms and harmonic complexities of his other pieces in the concert and made a fitting ending to this reflective and well-planned programme, suiting the mood of Holy Week well.

Sansara (Fiona Fraser, Amy Blythe, Jonathan Hanley, Ben Tomlin & Tom Herring) and Fretwork (Emilia Benjamin, Emily Ashton, Joanna Levine, Sam Stadlen & Richard Boothby) were both impressive and sensitive to the music and the occasion. I was particularly impressed with the upper two voices of Sansara (Fiona Fraser & Amy Blythe) and the upper voice of Fretwork (Emilia Benjamin), all three of which kept their volume and tone beautifully under control.