British Composer Awards – Celebration Concert

Ave Maria
A Birthday
Beatus auctor SaeculiSkempton
Adam lay y-boundenWeir
a blue true dream of sky
Water Lilies
Regina Caeli
Lullay my Liking
There is a Flower
Make we Joy
The Gleam

BBC Singers
Bob Chilcott

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 9 December, 2005
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, London

The convivial spirit of Christmas hung in the warm air of St Giles’s as the BBC Singers assembled in front of an auspicious audience following the 2005 British Composer Awards.

The choral music on offer was from the pens of past and present winners and nominees of the Awards. Under principal guest conductor, Bob Chilcott, the BBC Singers were, on the whole, on good form. They demonstrated their apparently effortless ability to handle even the most complex choral writing, and to produce some astoundingly atmospheric textures. There were, unfortunately, moments of problematic tuning, especially amongst the inner parts, and a couple of the solo voices came across as overly harsh in tone, and therefore out of place in the choir’s texture.

With running presentation by BBC Radio 3’s Sarah Walker, the concert opened with Gabriel Jackson’s effervescently beautiful “Ave Maria”. With characteristic harmonic richness and a smoothly flowing structure, Jackson’s command of choral tone and shapely melodic lines shone through, driven on by an energetic central section towards a supremely calm, Gorecki-like ending in which two solo soprano lines wound tenderly around each other.

Despite the gentleness of Ruth Byrchmore’s “A Birthday”, which won the liturgical section of this year’s Awards, the music was carried by a strong onward motion and well-judged, slowly evolving harmonic changes. The tender opening, slowly building in individual parts, led into a fascinating exploration of choral textures, brought about by thoughtful use of close harmonies, vowel sound combinations, and instinctive part-writing.

Tarik O’Regan’s “Beatus auctor Saeculi”, commissioned by BBC Singers’ soprano Alison Smart, opens with a medieval, organum-like texture. Despite a strong framework and some heavy unison moments, the linear definition and character-led vector of the music seemed obscured, either as a result of performance or writing. There is, however, an inherent beauty in the phrase shaping, calling to mind the choral writing of early Tippett.

“Adam lay y-bounden” provided a glimpse of Howard Skempton’s intricate grasp of choral writing. This succinct choral jewel was at once both atmospheric and fascinating, with a captivating duality between the melodic upper parts and a chant-like harmonic accompaniment in the lower voices.

The same dual approach was evident in Judith Weir’s “a blue true dream of sky”, with a glittering solo soprano line combining with some extraordinary higher-voice textures framed against the more solid lower parts. Along with a tightly constructed large-scale form, Weir manages, as so often, to produce a surprisingly powerful evocation of her wonderful titles, sonically rendering an imagined image without recourse to vague Messiaen-like methods.

Equally evocative was Judith Bingham’s “Water Lilies” – a setting of her own text. An exploration of semi-exotic harmonies and rarely used choral textures, Bingham’s music marries a strong and brave approach with a tender use of textual rendering. Contrasting to this was Cecilia McDowall’s approach to word-setting, which was also more reminiscent of medieval organum, in her “Regina Caeli”. Bristling with rhythmic interest, this brief piece was invigorating and striking.

There followed a trio of short works, starting with David Willcocks’s “Lullay my Liking”, set in honour of John Rutter’s 60th-birthday. Typically gentle and accessible, and very obviously the work of someone who has lived and breathed the English choral tradition, the work makes use of a succession of solo soprano verses and choral responses, with all verses being cleverly, if perhaps predictably, combined at the conclusion. Rutter’s own “There is a Flower” was a perfect demonstration of Rutter’s skills at arranging, and his tried and tested effective approach to choral writing, complete with alternating high and low voice verses and the obligatory hummed accompaniment. Steve Martland’s “Make we Joy”, apparently (and inexplicably) written at the summit of South Africa’s Table Mountain, provided an energetic, powerful and rhythmically exciting change, with its vocally challenging part-writing and word-setting that seems to have been inspired by 12th-century Parisian organum.

Concluding the evening was Harrison Birtwistle’s “The Gleam”, written for the 2003 Ceremony of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. Rich with a constantly evolving complex harmonic language, this was a consummately skilled rendering of the larger-scale form, whilst every detail served a fascinating musical purpose. Notable was a moment where the choir had to stamp, clap and shout in unison. I say notable, but more noticeable was the poor, poor bass who must have skipped a line of his music, and thus, with admirable bravado, recklessness and sheer joie de vivre, stamped, clapped and shouted all by himself during a gentle moment in the surrounding music, before turning bright puce. Never before have I seen a performer actively wishing for a freak geological occurrence to engulf them and suck them into the Earth’s core. It is highly admirable that those Singers around him reached the end of the piece whilst controlling their mirth, and that the highly professional Chilcott took it so good-humouredly.

Quite apart from being very enjoyable and musically rewarding, the evening proved beyond doubt that British composition in the choral sphere is slowly being reinvigorated, and that, today’s composers are more than capable of dramatically furthering and enriching the easily neglected canon of choral music.

  • British Composer Awards broadcast on 12 December from 7 o’clock on BBC Radio 3, with the BBC Singers’ recital beginning at about 9 o’clock
  • British Composer Awards

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