Prom 61: Late-night Chant

The Twelve
Chant (London premiere)

Louise Winter (mezzo-soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)

BBC Singers
City of London Sinfonia
Stephen Cleobury

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 4 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A fine concert celebrating two centenaries – Walton and Duruflé – and a half-century: Simon Bainbridge was 50 a few weeks ago.

The Twelve is a late work (1965) not heard very often (even rarer in the orchestral version heard here) written for Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford where the composer had been a chorister some fifty years before. The text is by another college alumnus, W.H. Auden, and the result is a celebratory, occasional piece of the sort that Walton excelled. The orchestration adds a sparkle lacking from the organ version – fanfare-like figures, delicate but telling touches on harp and percussion – in short the work of a genius! Unfortunately, though accurate and for the most part well balanced this performance lacked the character and wit so essential to bring the piece to life; the final Belshazzar-like “Let us praise them all with a merry noise” especially having no tongue-in-cheek at all! The distinguished solo contributions (particularly from the baritone Stuart MacIntyre who spat out his consonantswith relish) highlighted what for me is sometimes a big problem with the BBC Singers – the blend or rather the lack of it as a choir. Of course they are amazing and can sing the most complicated works with ease, but when each singer acts a soloist (with a wide vibrato) rather than trying to blend their voices, the resulting sound is not as crisp and varied as it might be.

Bainbridge’s work, scored for twelve solo voices and orchestra, showed the BBC Singers in a much more favourable light – requiring them to act very much as soloists. Chant was written for a performance in York Minster, the voices being amplified and projected through loudspeakers around that wonderful church – here the space of the RAH was used to similar and rather remarkable, though surely not so magical, effect. Bainbridge takes as his starting point a plainchant hymn, ’Ave, generosa’, attributed to Hildegard of Bingen. The original melody is fragmented between voices, the orchestra (with particular concentration on higher instruments – even two centrally placed double basses playing at the very top of their register) – commenting, shading and echoing the voices the voices. Rather in the manner of Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia the soundworld moves slowly from Hildegard to Bainbridge with echoes of the original becoming more and more distant and ghostly as the piece goes on. Though perhaps a little long, Chant is undeniably beautifully ’heard’ by Bainbridge – an imaginative response to an unusual commission. The Singers here were quite excellent, as for that matter were the orchestra and the discreetly handled amplification; the composer seemed very happy with the performance.

Mention has been made of Walton’s slender output and self-critical approach to composition. Compared to Maurice Duruflé, Walton was too prolific! Of the tiny collection of works that make up Duruflé’s catalogue, the Requiem of 1947 is the largest and certainly the best known. Heard here in the full orchestral version (there are two others, one with organ and one for small orchestra), one was able to savour Duruflé’s marvellous ear for orchestral colour – delicate, sophisticated, the plaintive sounds of bassoon and cor anglais much in evidence – a sort of midway point between Fauré and Messiaen perhaps.

Stephen Cleobury caught the ethereal quality of the music very well – the orchestra was subtle or ecstatic as the occasion demanded (the “Hosanna in excelsis” of the ’Sanctus’ being particularly memorable) and the choir became a much more harmonised whole then they had seemed in the Walton. Sadly the only negative point here came from the soloists – or at least one of them. Roderick Williams was his usual commanding and musical presence, but the heart-stopping ’Pie Jesu’ was absurd as sung by Louise Winter – the orchestra played beautifully, but Winter’s over-powering account was more akin to Richard Strauss than Duruflé. An unfortunate blemish on an otherwise commendable performance.

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