The Stabat Mater, a Medieval hymn which portrays Mary’s suffering as Christ’s mother during his Crucifixion, has been set to music by numerous composers, most notably Pergolesi, Schubert, Dvořák, Pärt and Macmillan. In this new setting, Pietà, a co-commission from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and St. Albans Choral Society, British composer Richard Blackford interweaves the text of the Stabat Mater with poems from the ‘Requiem’ cycle by Anna Akhmatova, whose husband was taken away and ‘disappeared’ by Stalin’s KGB; her son was also arrested and she feared she would never see him again. In our troubled, turbulent times, contemporary Pietàs are tragically all too familiar – refugee parents desperately cradling babies and children, mourning mothers in war-ravaged communities, the anger and grief of victims of tragedies like the Manchester Arena terrorist attack or the Grenfell Tower fire…. Through the settings of Akhmatova’s poetry, Blackford makes the Stabat Mater a universal reflection on grief and loss – and the attendant rage, pain and incomprehension.
For seventeen months I’ve pleaded
Pleaded that you come home,
Flung myself at the hangman’s feet
For you, my son,
For you, my horror
from ‘Requiem’ by Anna Ahkmatova
Blackford chose the title after seeing Michelangelo’s marble Pietà in Rome, and, like the sculpture, his new work encompasses grief, rage and sorrow with tenderness, poignancy and, ultimately, beauty and hope. The work is scored for string orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, mezzo-soprano, baritone and solo saxophone. While the chorus and soloists present the main narrative – the pain and grief of Mary and Anna Ahkmatova – the saxophone provides a third, abstract voice, the voice of every grieving mother. Blackford chose the soprano saxophone to create “a modern instrumental dimension, very close to the sound of the human voice”.
In its world premiere performance on 22 June 2019 at Poole Lighthouse, Pietà was preceded in the first half by Fauré’s Requiem, which was given a meditative, other-worldly performance by the excellent BSO Chorus under Gavin Carr, with soloists Issie Curchin and Stephen Gadd. This provided a wonderful foil to Blackford’s music, which is intellectual and sophisticated, yet accessible in its use of carefully-crafted melody and counterpoint. Rooted in tonality and modality, Pietà is characterised by rhythmic dynamism, breadth of expression and lush textures, redolent of Janácek and Syzmanowski. The use of a children’s choir (in the fifth movement of the work) is a nod to another of Blackford’s influences – Benjamin Britten – and provides an episode of innocence and sweetness in this grief-scorched narrative.
With powerful, operatic singing by mezzo Jennifer Johnston and baritone Stephen Gadd, a fine, emotionally engaging performance by the BSO and BSO Chorus (whose intonation, timing and precision was impressive), the entire work has a filmic, visual quality with its gripping narrative and vividly descriptive scoring – tumultuous strings, passionate dramatic climaxes, ‘snapping’ pizzicato in the cellos (to represent Christ’s flagellation), jagged syncopated rhythms, an acapella movement of intense concentration and beauty. Organised in three parts, Pietà moves from grief and rage to redemption and hope via nine distinct movements. The obligato saxophone, eloquently played by Amy Dickson, provides a unifying link between the movements, initially haunting, mournful and timeless, evocative of an ancient shawm, and later calm and tender as the music moves towards its hopeful, redemptive close.
An absorbing and committed performance by all, supplemented by detailed programme notes by the composer with translations of the text.
This arresting, emotionally intense and accessible work for choir and orchestra receives its London premiere at Cadogan Hall on 19th October. A recording on the Nimbus Label is expected very soon.