Laudate Dominum Janácek
Mass in E flat Eben
Prague Te Deum 1989 Dvorák
Four Choruses Op.29 Novák
Four Poems Op.47/1 & 3 Martinu
Five Czech Madrigals
Stephen Disley (organ)
London Symphony Chorus conducted by Stephen Westrop
Bohemian Spring Series - 8th April
Sunday, April 08, 2001 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
As an adjunct to the LSOs Bohemian Spring series, this recital by the London Symphony Chorus was a valuable reminder of the wealth and range of Czech choral music. Chronologically too, the concert delved back further than the nationalist tradition of the mid-nineteenth century.
Jan Dismas Zelenka remains one of the most individual composers of the Bach generation, his apparently quixotic temperament reflected in his quirky but distinctive musical idiom.
However the Laudate Dominum that opened the concert is unlikely to have made him many new friends; its energetic but anodyne treatment of the text not helped by singing that, from the tenors in particular, verged on the woeful. The account of Janáceks Mass in E flat was more convincing. This torso from the interim between the operas Fate and Mr Broucek, skilfully realised by Paul Wingfield, offers tantalising glimpses of Janaceks last decade, not least the effervescent Sanctus - essentially a truncated trial-run for that of the Glagolitic Mass. Yet the austere Kyrie, with its almost pointillist organ pedal, the plangent Credo, stylistically akin to that of Bruckners E minor Mass, and introspective Agnus Dei are full of interest, and came across sensitively if a little cautiously.
Good to have at least a sample of Czech music post-Martinu in the series, but Petr Ebens Prague Te Deum 1989 felt more rewarding to sing than to hear. The busy but stylistically anonymous polyphony had resolution but little of the elation that music inspired by the Velvet Revolution might be expected to convey. A spirited performance, Stephen Disleys incisive organ playing was an especial pleasure.
The second half was devoted to a cappella writing, a rich but little-known source of musical rewards. Dvoráks four Op.29 Choruses are engaging settings of Czech Romantic verse, capturing their distinctive rhythmic profile with delightful insouciance. In between each pair came two of Vítezslav Nováks Op. 47 Poems, sombre and chromatically-intense renderings of dense symbolist poems by Otakar Brezina; their sensuous soul-searching typical of a composer who, while lacking the distinctive idiom of his contemporary Suk, deserves to be remembered for his powerful contribution to fin-de-siecle Romanticism (and whose dramatic cantata The Storm would sound thrilling in the Barbican). Finally, Five Czech Madrigals from Martinu, user-friendly but perfectly crafted folk-like miniatures from his American period, replete with a range of expressive devices to gently tax the many amateur choirs who must have found them perfect recital material over the last half-century.
Certainly the LSC came into its own after the interval, guided through some difficult and unfamiliar repertoire in the capable hands of Stephen Westrop. No doubt the uncertainties of the first half will have been ironed out by the time of the concerts New York repeat. The present occasion will have opened the ears of those present to music of which many were previously unaware.