BBC Symphony Chorus

Four Choral Songs, Op.53
Four Songs, Op.17
Organ Sonata in C minor on the 94th Psalm – finale
Richard Rodney Bennett
Four Poems of Thomas Campion [BBC commission: world première]
Organ Sonata in G, Op.28 – finale
Four Psalms, Op.74 – Nos.1 & 2
Give unto the Lord, Op.74

BBC Symphony Chorus
Stephen Jackson

Iain Farrington (organ)

Nicholas Korth & Christopher Larkin (horns) and Sioned Williams (harp) [Brahms]

Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy (baritone) [Grieg]

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although two solo organ pieces (actually, movements from sonatas) leavened this afternoon concert, a sequence of largely unaccompanied choral music ran the danger of not providing sufficient variety of timbre for a programme – without an interval – of some ninety minutes’ duration.

Nevertheless, the BBC Symphony Chorus demonstrated a flexibility of response to its conductor Stephen Jackson which, in the end, made for an interesting sequence of pieces.

Elgar’s Opus 53 “Choral Songs” provide a well-contrasted grouping. Whilst the programme note alluded to Ivesian bi-tonality in the first – ‘There is sweet music’ – in practice, Elgar’s gentle dissonance is far removed from the anarchic sounds of his New England counterpart. The rich harmonic vocabulary and variegated textures convey Elgar’s sensitive response to words throughout the set of four songs, the most striking of which is the last – ‘Owls (an epitaph)’ – to a curious text by the composer himself, with its repeated calls of “What is it? … Nothing”. This has an intensity that surely sets it apart from comparable English choral music of the period – 1907. Jackson captured the spirit of these somewhat elusive pieces, and the singing was accurate and expressive.

Brahms’s “Four Songs” for women’s voices has accompaniment for two horns and harp. The instrumentalists – from the BBC Symphony Orchestra – were superlative, with the solo horn providing an eerie foreshadowing of Mahler (whose Seventh Symphony sprang to mind in the first song – ‘A plangent harp resounds’). The ladies enunciated the German texts impeccably, though two things registered – one the somehow inappropriately ‘jaunty’ setting of ‘Come away, death’ from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, and the other the fact that two of the songs are, in effect, laments for women sung by women. But the somewhat unusual combination of instruments and voices ensured that Brahms’s sometimes-unorthodox response to the verses was convincingly delivered via a considered performance.

The finale from the short-lived Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm made for an almost jarring contrast. Here, and in the finale from Elgar’s Sonata, which preceded the Grieg songs, one could admire Iain Farrington’s control of the instrument’s mechanics but, ultimately, the playing lacked the degree of panache that is necessary in this repertoire. His choice of registration was not always ideal, with a brighter tone being desirable and, indeed, available on the Royal Albert Hall organ.

Sir Richard Rodent Bennett provided a very brief written introduction referring to Thomas Campion and his poetry, but requested that “no further note be included” in connection with his “Four Poems of Thomas Campion”. These are totally apposite musical responses to the texts, by turn powerful and eloquent. The choir is often divided into several parts, but there was a surety of execution that was most impressive. The rich harmony sometimes called to mind Herbert Howells and, although he may not like the comparison, Bennett’s teacher Lennox Berkeley. The reflective ‘Never weather-beaten saile’ – the second song – stood up well with settings by other composers, but perhaps the most impressive is the third, with its volatile refrain of “Fire, fire”, rhythmically strong and impulsive. The repose of ‘The hours of sleepy night’ was tempered by a sense of unease, leading to a unison-note conclusion. One can hardly imagine a more assured first performance of music that conveys its intentions immediately and accessibly.

Grieg’s “Four Psalms” include the last music he wrote, and finds him more harmonically adventurous than he is in works that are better known. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang the first two in what I took to be accurate Norwegian, with mellifluous singing from baritone Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy, whose contribution one wished was more extended.

To conclude, an anthem by Elgar written for the 1914 Festival of the Sons of the Clergy (which persists to this day) at St Paul’s Cathedral, with combined choirs and accompaniment for organ and orchestra. Iain Farrington provided secure support – though, again, registration could have been more imaginative, especially when the text (from Psalm 29) announces “the voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon”. The organ is effective enough to accompany a cathedral or collegiate choir, but with the singers of the BBC Symphony Chorus in full cry, this seemed a missed opportunity for presenting the work with its intended accompanimental garb, though one recognises the impracticality of this on this particular occasion. But the fervent choral singing and purposeful direction brought this concert to a satisfying close.

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