Wilful Chants [BBC commission: world premiere]
Signals from Heaven
Le cantique des cantiques
BBC Symphony Chorus
Soloists from Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir
Andrew Crowley [Signals from Heaven]
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: 8 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The BBC Symphony Chorus is more often than not heard performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but was here given the chance to take centre-stage in a demanding and well-contrasted matinee that would have been a considerable challenge to any professional choir, let alone a large amateur group.
Two masterpieces of twentieth-century French choral music began and ended the programme. Having chosen to perform Poulenc’s great secular cantata “Figure humaine” (The Face of Humanity) – a brave choice at the best of times – one can only sympathise with Stephen Jackson’s problem as to whether to place the piece at the end when the choir would be exhausted or at the beginning when its members had not warmed up sufficiently. Either decision would have been a gamble. It took a while for the singers to get into its stride. Some of the entries, especially at the cruel high pianissimos demanded by the composer sounded tentative and worried, whilst the balance between the ladies and gentlemen seemed very much in favour or the sopranos and altos – a little more ‘oomph’ from the basses would not have gone amiss. Despite quite rightly re-tuning between movements, this piece can be a nightmare to keep in pitch and on the whole this performance succeeded in that regard at least, magnificently. The pacing in general was admirable, but most successful was the dramatic middle movement ‘Riant du ciel et des planetes…’ (Laughing at the sky and planets…’ ) and the long overwhelming climb to the fervent closing cries of liberation. If there are still people around who think of Poulenc as a bit of a ‘buffoon’ as far as his music is concerned , this one work should surely dampen that criticism – one of the most important choral pieces of the last century, without any doubt.
Born in 1908 and dying in 2002, the long-lived (Jean-Yves) Daniel-Lesur’s sensual, at times positively erotic sacred cantata “Le cantique des cantiques” (Song of Songs) concluded the concert – the work is a panoply of riches, full of the most glorious vocal Technicolor scoring with chords that really should be given an X-certificate. The text, whatever one’s religious leanings, is an embarrassment of gaudy dreadfulness, but when sung in such beautifully pronounced French, and wonderful vocal colour and sensitivity, who cares? The members of Trinity College Chamber Choir contributed solos and ensembles with startling confidence to a work that one can’t listen to that often – but it is so worth the wait!
In between came brass music by Toru Takemitsu, eloquently played by London Brass. The relatively early Garden Rain (written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble) must surely be one of the quietest pieces ever written for such an ensemble, relying on tone-colour and the slow progress of time and silence (for once not broken by outbursts of bronchial barking from the audience). Andrew Crowley left his trumpet backstage to direct the two brief, unassuming fanfares that constitute Signals from Heaven.
All the forces, together with O DUO, came together for the new work by Stephen Montague. No doubt the BBC had a good idea that Montague would respond to its commission with something unpredictable, but cannot have anticipated its wildness, energy and sheer wackiness. The composer describes his new work as “… a sceptical, socio-political, free-word-association rant: a wolf in ecclesiastical sheep’s clothing”. So there! The text mixes words and phrases (in Latin) that range from the biblical to Karl Marx by way of the motto of Arsenal Football Club, which I’m sure all readers will know is “Victoria concordia crescit” (Victory comes from harmony). The choir is required to chant, speak, yell, whoop – and sing! – and forget any conventions and simply ‘go for it’ – this the protagonists did, with great gusto and enthusiasm, even negotiating Montague’s opening tongue-twisting “spell” that summons up both good and evil spirits. They were having a wonderful time, urged on by Stephen Jackson’s expert direction and vivid contributions from brass and percussion. Great fun! And deserving of a much bigger audience.