Akeda (The Sacrifice of Isaac) [UK premiere]
Symphony on a Pavane [LPO commission: World premiere]
Yvette Bonner & Rachel Nicholls (sopranos)
Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
Thomas Walker (tenor)
João Fernandes (bass)
Christopher Sladdin (treble)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 10 January, 2007
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The London Philharmonic has put on some enterprising concerts recently, none more so than this unlikely but worthwhile programme conducted by Steven Sloane. It included the first performance of Symphony on a Pavane by John McCabe: ostensibly the ‘sixth symphony’ by a composer whose output of large-scale orchestral works is central to a significant output now stretching back over four decades.
The pavane in question is that of the ‘Fifth Pavan and Galliard’ from William Byrd’s “My Ladye Nevells Booke”, which pervades the work with an undemonstrative resourcefulness that is typical of McCabe. Playing continuously, it falls into four sections lasting close on 25 minutes – though the scherzo-like second is so much a continuation of the first as to make for an unbroken winding-down of activity and also texture from the energetic opening pages. There follows a Largo featuring some of McCabe’s most atmospheric instrumentation, with a bass oboe making a rare orchestral appearance in music whose intent sense of motion carries over into the finale.
Not for the first time in a symphony, the finale is the most problematic section – not because it is less expertly-written than the forgoing, but because it brings the accrued momentum to a head in too predictable a fashion; while the influence of ‘early’ Tippett, having previously been heard to advantage in the bracing brass- and sensuous string-writing, becomes overt here and in the calm epilogue that evokes the ‘Ritual Dances’ from “The Midsummer Marriage” just a little too readily.
Symphony on a Pavane was played with commitment by the London Philharmonic, with whom McCabe has enjoyed a productive relationship over the years, and directed by Sloane so as to make the most of those opportunities that the composer draws from his modest but imaginatively-handled forces. Whatever the reservations expressed, it fully deserves further performances: to which end, it was a pity this premiere was not recorded, as it would have made an ideal inclusion on the LPO’s own label.
It says much about today’s ‘standard repertoire’ that the real novelty here was a performance of Handel’s “Dixit Dominus”, a striking product of the composer’s formative years in Rome (1706-10) that saw some of his most original choral works. In the combining of an evident Protestant sensibility with the formal and expressive requirements of the Catholic liturgy, whether in its pointed juxtaposition of verse from Psalm 109 or in its musical synthesis of rigour and elaboration, the piece duly set an arresting precedent for Baroque sacred music such as other composers were not slow to exploit.
With the LPO slimmed down to a small but full-toned body of strings and a subtly-deployed continuo of harpsichord, chamber organ and theorbo, there was never any likelihood of this account evoking those opulent realisations of eras past, with the dynamism that Sloane brought to the contrapuntal choral sections matched by the expressive pliancy of the solos and ensemble. Best among the soloists were sopranos Yvette Bonner and Rachel Nicholls, and bass João Fernandes, with the London Philharmonic Choir a little tentative in more intricate passages but acquitting itself well in the fugue that brings the work to its exhilarating close. Who would bet against such choral works making a well-deserved comeback in the concert-hall?
The evening was framed by pieces by Jewish composers. Now in his 72nd year, Israeli Noam Sheriff remains an all but unknown quantity in the UK, and yet his passacaglia The Sacrifice of Isaac (1997) suggests a figure of some substance. Although dedicated to conductor Gary Bertini, the work was inspired by the murder of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin: the gradual and sombre build-up to a sustained climax, before a more discursive ebbing-away to the calm but hardly serene close (for all the quiet reiteration of the word ‘pacem’ by the musicians) denoting an ‘in memoriam’ of real gravity.
The piece was powerfully rendered by Sloane, who has done much to raise the profile of Israeli music in the West, and who ended the concert with an equally dedicated account of Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” (1965). With Christopher Sladdin uncommonly secure in the mellifluous but demanding treble solos, the LPO strings warmly resonant in the lachrymose prelude that launches the third and most extended of these psalm settings, and the LP Choir seeming wholly at ease with the Hebrew language, there was precious little to fault in the performance itself. Whether Bernstein’s meretricious stylisation of clichés best left to Carl Orff constitutes a worthwhile artistic statement is another matter entirely.