Bohemian Spring Series – 8th April

Laudate Dominum
Mass in E flat
Prague Te Deum 1989
Four Choruses Op.29
Four Poems Op.47/1 & 3
Five Czech Madrigals

Stephen Disley (organ)

London Symphony Chorus conducted by Stephen Westrop

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 April, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

As an adjunct to the LSO’s 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 Janácek’s 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 Janacek’s 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 Bruckner’s 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 Eben’s 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 Disley’s 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. Dvorák’s 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 Novák’s 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 concert’s New York repeat. The present occasion will have opened the ears of those present to music of which many were previously unaware.

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