London Philharmonic Choir 60th-Birthday Concert

Lobet den Herrn, BWV230
Motets – Locus iste; Os justi; Christus factus est; Virga Jesse floruit; Ave Maria
Requiem, K626

Katie Van Kooten (soprano)
Liora Grodnikaite (mezzo)
Robin Tritschler (tenor)
Krzysztof Szumanski (bass-baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Neville Creed [Bach & Bruckner]
Vladimir Jurowski [Mozart]

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 13 May, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

When a conductor approaches one of the better-known works in the repertoire, there must be a huge urge to stamp a personal mark on it for posterity to cherish and jaws to drop for. This urge appears to have overcome Vladimir Jurowski in what was an otherwise highly commendable performance of Mozart’s Requiem celebrating the 60th-birthday of the London Philharmonic Choir.

There are, perhaps, other reasons for the take-no-prisoners tempos used in the ‘Rex Tremendae’ and ‘Confutatis’, and the almost comically exaggerated rolled ‘r’ at the very start of the work. Neither of these are necessarily reason for criticism, merely for interest. The ‘Rex Tremendae’, indeed, was exhilarating up to the slightly anti-climactic ‘Salve Me’. The ‘Hostias’ – the offering of prayers for the souls of the dead – was, however, upbeat to the point of jovial perkiness, and the introduction of sudden rallentandos into the middle of an otherwise smooth ‘Benedictus’ served simply to disrupt the pleasant flow.

Most unexplainable and bizarre, however, was the imposition of severe, subito pianissimos onto the last chords of the well-controlled ‘Kyrie’, the slightly rigid ‘Lacrymosa’, and, most gratingly, the overbearing, doom-laden final chord of the whole work. This is a chord, built out of sinisterly empty bare fifths, that serves as the summation of the awe-inspired fear, terror and pleading that has comprised the previous 45 minutes of music. Why obscure that for the sake of a unique selling point?

This question is doubly relevant given the number of wasted opportunities for detailed interpretation that were missed. The ‘Salve Me’ that placidly interrupts the fiery ‘Rex Tremendae’ passed almost unnoticed; the rhythmically insistent ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ that concludes the ‘Hostias’ was lacking in larger-scale direction and feature, and the decision to split the soprano line in the sotto voce passages of the ‘Confutatis’ simply led to a thin, unsupportable tone, easily avoided by the ‘original’ addition of the altos at this point. I also mourn the re-writing of the ending of the ‘Lacrymosa’, denying the tenors a moment of gratuitous pleasure in their plea for eternal rest.

Unusually positioned on the far side of the conductor, the four soloists each brought some unique character to their passages. Katie Van Kooten’s clear, sometimes dominating soprano voice was dense with intricately beautiful subtleties, and tonally complemented Robin Tritschler’s dazzling, astonishingly perfectly-tuned tenor tones. Liora Grodnikaite’s rich, rewarding tone was sadly lost with a dynamic that was often way too quiet, but what was audible hinted at an enviable voice with an inherent musicality. Krzysztof Szymanski’s strong, noble baritone provided a confidently supportive grounding for the quartet.

But what of the birthday boy – the choir itself? The first half of the performance afforded the singers, and their conductor Neville Creed, the perfect opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

Opening with Bach’s motet “Lobet den Herrn” the LPC presented a magnificently professional and consummately musical performance, brushing aside the challenges presented by the writing and leaving itself free to demonstrate a unity and subtlety of intimate control that would be enviable in a choir of much smaller proportions. Phrases were beautifully shaped, with a tender gentle rounding of tone at cadence points, and each voice part was consistently coherent.

Very few of the tell-tale signs of an amateur choir were evident – inadequate breath control, flattened descending passages, ambiguous vowel sounds and lazy consonants were all effortlessly vanquished. While there were occasional problematic moments – a tendency to hit hard vowel entries harshly in the upper voices, a few intonation issues in “Christus factus est”, and, most pervasively, a gentle decline in pitch caused, I think, by the top line – there were also moments of sublime beauty.

The texture built by the fluent entries at the start of “Locus iste” was so rich it must spend most of the year in Zurich for tax reasons. The same motet ended with a translucent, still calm in a moment of absolutely undisturbed choral magic. The shining blend of the split tenor and bass lines in “Ave Maria” had an impressive depth of tone and an incredibly detailed intricate shape. And the upwelling of repressed passion that Creed brought to the surface with perfect timing during “Os justi” pulled on the heartstrings with a personal plea worthy of Byrd’s most impassioned recusant writing.

There is absolutely no doubting the consistently high quality of the LPC’s music-making, and the singers rightly deserve their unassailable place among the top choirs of their type. In these birthday celebrations, they demonstrated such disciplined and well-trained musicality that Neville Creed was able to play them with a tenderness becoming of the most intimate of Chopin Nocturnes. The last 60 years have certainly been well spent!

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