Matthew Kaner is by no means the first composer to wrestle with representing the mystical in music. In his new work for baritone, chorus and orchestra he captures it uncommonly effectively. Pearl is a half-hour journey through grief, setting words by the poet laureate Simon Armitage, who worked with Kaner on a 2018 retelling of Hansel & Gretel. This time the words are from Armitage’s 2016 translation of a 14th-century work thought to be by the writer who brought us Gawain. A Jeweller mourning his “Pearl”, presumably his daughter, dreams that he sees her in paradise. He can’t reach her, but what she says to him is enough that when he wakes his anguish has turned into acceptance.
It begins with music that repeatedly slips through your fingers – distant-sounding muted brass, fiddle-like solo-violin figures that cascade downwards before coming to rest. The first words of the Jeweller are coloured by reinforcement from the choir that vanishes almost as soon as you notice it. It’s quiet, gently glittering stuff, and slow-moving in the expository section, then growing more agitated as the dream-vision begins.
Then come the words spoken by Pearl – and, as sung by the BBC Symphony Chorus, these were spine-tingling. The passage started with slender, innocent lines for the sopranos, then grew to encompass the whole ensemble, overlapping and jostling together as if that one speaking girl had become multitudes. Meanwhile, the orchestra fizzed with static, as though the collision of worlds were sparking electricity. The climb-down to the postlude and brief final Amen could have been anticlimactic, but the tireless performance of Roderick Williams as the Jeweller, supremely communicative as ever, kept the intensity sustained.
Kaner’s Pearl followed Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung, in which conductor Ryan Wigglesworth drew tenderness as well as expansiveness from the BBCSO, showcasing some polished playing: the wind solos at the beginning dovetailed beautifully into one another, and the strings found extra warmth as the Transfiguration theme rose up through the orchestra for the first time. That was enough death and acceptance for one night. After the interval, Holst’s Planets blew away any unease, the orchestra breezing through Mars and Mercury. With the final movement, Neptune, the voices of the women of the choir drifted in from the highest, furthest point of the hall, bringing the mysticism right back.