Eternity, infinity, and other ultimate abstractions are described in such entrancing detail by 17th-century poet and theologian Thomas Traherne that he seems to have personally visited the afterlife's "transparent temple of infinite luster" to know what he knew. Such is the intriguing basis of The Fifth Century, a 45-minute work by British composer Gavin Bryars, premiered Saturday by Philadelphia choir the Crossing and PRISM Saxophone Quartet at Crane Arts.
Ambitious and subtle, and at the same time not for everybody, The Fifth Century doesn't attempt to describe eternity's "mysterious absence of time and ages" but gives Traherne's words an ethereal showcase. It's a significant addition to the output of this 71-year-old British maverick. Bryars operates in a narrow framework of polyphonic choral sound with muted, coloristic use of saxophones. Similar in manner to Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ, Bryars' piece avoids conventional events and dramatic contrasts but gives most movements a distinctive tint and narrative, making each one its own world.