Crouch End Festival Chorus – Harmonium & The Plague

The Plague

Paul McGann (narrator) [The Plague]

Crouch End Festival Chorus

London Orchestra da Camera
David Temple

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 15 January, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Death and pestilence might not seem a recipe for a successful concert, but the enterprising Crouch End Festival Chorus and indefatigable founder-conductor David Temple pulled out of the hat an enterprising and invigorating evening that put professional outfits to shame in its combination of two late-20th-century choral masterpieces.

The wonder is not just that the Crouch End Festival Chorus has performed John Adams’s “Harmonium” (1981) three times before (once in the presence of the composer) and Roberto Gerhard’s “The Plague” once previously (what other chorus, the world over, could match that? – not even the BBC Symphony Chorus I warrant), but that they brought the two together (admittedly for the first time) in one programme.

Adams’s heighted romanticism, suffused with wave-like climaxes in his distinctive minimalist style (which can pack a real punch), was first. The weight of the large chorus brought out the repeated syllables at the start of John Donne’s “Negative Love”, but these singers could produce silky long lines as Adams requests, particularly in the first Emily Dickinson poem “Because I would not stop for Death (He kindly stopped for me)”, as well as blistering power in the final “Wild Nights”. This is a sumptuous, enveloping work that washes over you in waves of sheer sound. The young freelance players of London Orchestra da Camera, arrayed to the very edge of the stage, the percussion, so tightly packed stage-right that David Temple had some major diversions to get to the podium, rose to the occasion in splendid fashion.

Roberto Gerhard’s “The Plague”, based on Camus’s novel set in North Africa, dates from only 17 years before Adams’s “Harmonium”, but inhabits a completely different soundworld. For much of it the chorus shouts and emits sounds rather than sings, becoming the hysterical population of Oran as the town is put into quarantine because of a post-war plague outbreak. We hear the story through the words of an unidentified doctor, who forces the town council to take action when rats are found dying in the streets. Paul McGann was on hand to be the narrator, suitably attired in cream suit and hat, and armed with his doctor’s black bag, sitting behind a wooden desk upon which stood an old Bakelite telephone, and beside which was a coat rack from which hung a stethoscope.

McGann calmly, almost dispassionately, told the story, the chorus ululating and shouting in accompaniment to the orchestra’s battery of orchestral effects. Onomatopoeic in essence, this score has a dramatic intensity that focuses Camus’s tale into just 50 minutes, leaving you wanting more. I can only guess how hard it is to bring off, but it seemed completely successful in this performance and was greeted wildly by the enthusiastic audience.

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