Late-night Choral

Janáček
Our Father
Turnage
Calmo [BBC commission: world premiere]
MacMillan
Le tombeau de Georges Rouault
Holst
Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda – Group 3
Eben
Sunday Music – Moto ostinato
Bingham
The Secret Garden [BBC commission: world premiere]

Thomas Walker (tenor)

Sioned Williams (harp)

Thomas Trotter (organ)

Three Strange Angels (handbells/desk-bells)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Stephen Jackson


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the pleasures of late-night Proms is hearing a miscellany of works whose stylistic divergence throws up unforeseen connections and similarities. Thus it was this here, with Stephen Jackson directing the BBC Symphony Chorus in a wide-ranging programme – interspersed with organ pieces played, with his customary alacrity, by Thomas Trotter.

The current Proms season has seen the revival of several major works by Janáček – of which Our Father (1901), if not such a rarity as the cantata The Eternal Gospel, is only occasionally encountered in live performance. An expansive setting of The Lord’s Prayer for chorus, sensitively accompanied by harp and organ, it attests to the fervent unconventionality of the composer’s religious convictions. The present account was fully in keeping with the music’s intimate intensity, and Thomas Walker was suitably uninhibited in the exacting tenor part that endows the work with first-person immediacy.

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is Calmo (2003): Mark-Anthony Turnage’s brief, five-language setting of the phrase ‘Give us peace’ – ethereally set for mixed voices and handbell ringers, and evoking a Tavener-like contemplation without the affectation. A touching tribute to the late Sue Knussen (and apparently to form part of A Relic of Memory, which Turnage is writing for Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic).

Trotter then took centre-stage for a larger, more demonstrative ‘in memoriam’. Chamber music has often seemed to suit James MacMillan’s brand of emotive directness, but Le tombeau de Rouault (2003) is a clumsy affair – drawing its garish ideas into a sonata design of grating unsubtlety. The creator of some of the twentieth-century’s most liberated religious art deserved better. Far more pleasurable was ‘Moto ostinato’ – drawn from Sunday Music (1958) which constitutes Petr Eben’s first major organ cycle. Eben’s rhythmic devices often seem more enticing than they sound, but the ploy here underpins a theme of long-breathed intensity – building to a conclusion of cascading vigour.

In between these pieces came the beatific restraint of Holst’s third group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (1910). Music of an evocative translucency that finds a natural setting in the resonance of the Albert Hall – whether the wistfulness of “Hymn to the Dawn”, or the mysterious processional of the closing “Hymn to Pushan”. Lovely singing from the women of the Chorus, and with Sioned Williams attentive in the harp writing that gives the vocal writing an added lustre.

The full chorus reassembled for the premiere of Judith Bingham’s The Secret Garden. As a former member of the BBC Singers, Bingham is well-equipped to write for a choir – as a succession of works over the last decade confirm. For the present piece she has assembled an anthology of texts whose detailed horticultural observations are defined by allusions to the Garden of Eden – specifically, the loss of innocence and gaining of experience as a consequence of the first ‘expulsion’. At times, notably in the closing “Air de nuit”, the amount of text perhaps inhibits that which Bingham is seeking to communicate – but the choral writing is of genuine imaginative resource, with the organ adding a sonorous underpinning to the textures and an appropriately ‘synergistic’ interlude of its own.

Taken overall, then, a lively and absorbing late-evening’s listen, and a tribute to the performing zeal of Stephen Jackson – now in his 16th season as Director of the BBC Symphony Chorus, and under whom its reputation for innovative and wide-ranging programming has been solidly maintained.

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