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Sometimes being a musician must feel akin to being an archaeologist. The tools may be different, but old or forgotten scores need to be found and dusted down, their contents sifted for hidden meaning and reinterpreted by experts if audiences are to get any understanding of what their creators intended.
The small choral group Exaudi specialises in excavating gritty pieces that even today’s other, highly skilled small choirs avoid. You want to hear how gritty the music can get? For this latest concert, Exaudi’s director James Weeks dug out some real hard nuts, both medieval and contemporary.
The difficulties of deciphering early musical scores mean that every performing edition has been through the hands of an editor. Weeks chose one of several possible solutions for how to perform the 12th-century Léonin’s Alleluia — Video celos and his expert singers made the music fresh and alive. Short pieces by Machaut and Ciconia also combined precision and purity, not least thanks to the radiance of Exaudi’s principal soprano, Juliet Fraser.
The early music novelty was the short Angelorum psalat by Rodericus (c1400). Exaudi sang this first in one edition and then in two contrasting editions simultaneously with additional pairs of voices adding portions of the music backwards. Was this authenticity? Hardly — more like Weeks having fun, cooking up a thoroughly modern brew from some long-forgotten ingredients.
This being an Exaudi programme, there had to be some tough, (nearly) contemporary music, too. The delights of Scelsi’s experimental sounds in his Tre canti sacri are an acquired taste. Michael Finnissy’s Kelir, not performed since its premiere in 1982, explores the art of Javanese puppet theatre (not with the puppets, sadly) in similarly adventurous sounds, but with more variety. Exaudi is currently trying to raise the funds to record the work. Best was a selection of small pieces from Heinz Holliger’s nicht Ichts — nicht Nichts (2010-11), exquisitely concentrated miniatures that created a small world of their own. On an evening such as this, when the going gets hard, at least there is always Exaudi’s extraordinary technical virtuosity to hang on to.