Music for Reflection and Hope – David Hill conducts The Bach Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra with Members of NHS Chorus-19

Gabriel Jackson
The Promise [The Bach Choir commission; words by Laura-Jane Foley; world premiere]

Hymn – psalm tune ‘Why fumeth in sight’ [words by Caroline Hoffman]

Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Richard Blackford
Vision of a Garden [The Bach Choir commission; words by Peter Johnstone; world premiere]

Cantique de Jean Racine, Op.11
Requiem in D minor, Op.48

Katy Hill (soprano) & Gareth Brynmor John (baritone)

Anna Lapwood (presenter)

The Bach Choir
Members of NHS Chorus-19

Philharmonia Orchestra
David Hill

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 24 October, 2021
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

It was a welcome sight having The Bach Choir at full strength after a pause of nearly two years, during which time one of its tenors, Peter Johnstone, nearly died from Covid-19, and it was the virus that cast its shadow over this concert of English and French music. The medical staff, many of them in the audience, looking after Johnstone in the I.C.U. at Addenbrooke’s had kept a diary over five months of his progress from induced coma to recovery, and Johnstone and the composer Richard Blackford had adapted the entries into a text ranging from practical matters to simple greetings and messages of hope and support.

Richard Blackford is no stranger to writing music on big themes – in his oratorio Not in our Time (2011) he takes on the Crusades and 9/11 – but it is intimacy and a sense of expectation that carries Vision of a Garden from intensive care, to rehab., farewells and a follow-up visit (when he was given the diaries). The garden of the title is the one at Addenbrooke’s that Johnstone dreamed of without, as he thought when he came out of coma, ever having actually seen it. With a hint of Paradise and a darkness-to-light progress, Vision of a Garden is a not-completely secular Passion-play for baritone (as Johnstone) and a chorus of medics, and even though Blackford negotiates what could be a minefield of extravagant emotional overstatement with a sure sense of less is more, the piece tightens its grip. It helps that the text is simple and direct, free from any overtly poetic imagery, and suits Blackford’s lyrical, word-friendly style.

The Philharmonia strings opened the piece with quasi-aleatory flickerings, like the bleeps of hospital apparatus, and also like consciousness in freefall, and their return at the end, slightly more solid, suggested an oblique sort of resolution. The middle sections – in the mysterious garden, the rehab. ward, and the staff’s farewells on Johnstone’s discharge – managed to be both matter-of-fact and intensely visionary, and build stealthily to a sense of fulfilment, and there was a brief but telling quote from Messiah nearer the start. Johnstone, back singing with his fellow tenors, must have been very affected by the warmth and tenderness of baritone Gareth Brynmor John’s subtly characterful portrayal of Peter as the patient, and The Bach Choir singers sought out the text’s potential with impressive sympathy. I wonder what the future is for a work made on an event that people would be only too relieved to be rid of, but Vision of a Garden is well worth many hearings.

The concert opened with a short, sixteen-part a cappella motet by Gabriel Jackson, The Promise, with a four-line verse written by Laura-Jane Foley, establishing the programme’s darkness-to-light theme. The addition of a short film (from We Dream Films) reduced Jackson’s sober music to the role of sound-track, especially since the film’s green message and Foley’s text didn’t really hit it off. Members of the NHS Chorus-19 took part in the Tallis psalm tune Vaughan Williams used in his Tallis Fantasia, here with a new, rather sentimental text ‘Unsilenced Song’ from Caroline Hoffmann. David Hill conducted a spacious performance of the Vaughan Williams with the clearly defined separate groups within the Phiharmonia strings adding ecstatic depth and glow.

In the concert’s second half, John Rutter’s lovely orchestration of Fauré’s Requiem – lower strings, bassoons, horns, harp, organ and solo violin – and David Hill’s measured conducting cast a restrained, reflective spell, and gave us another welcome chance to hear Gareth Brynmor John, along with Katy Hill’s ethereal soprano in the Pie Jesu. The presenter Anna Lapwood – she was the soloist in the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony at the Proms this year – usefully guided us through the programme’s different elements.

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