Proms at … Holy Sepulchre London – BBC Singers/Sofi Jeannin

“The BBC Singers and Chief Conductor Sofi Jeannin take the Proms to the ‘Musicians’ Church’, Holy Sepulchre London (aka St Sepulchre-without-Newgate), where Proms founder-conductor Henry Wood first learnt the organ and was later laid to rest. This varied conspectus of 20th-century English choral music opens with the setting of lines by the then Poet Laureate, John Masefield, that Walton composed for the unveiling of the church’s Henry Wood memorial window in 1946, and is brought up to date with a new commission by Joanna Lee, At this man’s hand, setting the verse by Masefield that is inscribed on the window itself.” [BBC Proms website]

BBC Singers
Sofi Jeannin

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 17 August, 2019
Venue: Holy Sepulchre London, Holborn Viaduct, EC1

BBC Proms 2019's PromsAt... Holy Sepulchre London – BBC Singers, Sofi JeanninPhotograph: Chris ChristodoulouBeginning and ending in the side chapel dedicated to Sir Henry Wood, where his ashes are interred, this Proms at … Holy Sepulchre London concert commemorated the founder-conductor of the Proms in the 150th-anniversary year of his birth with British a cappella works.

Directed with unfussy clarity by Sofi Jeannin, chief conductor of the BBC Singers, this programme was constructed around three larger pieces – Britten’s Sacred and Profane, Thea Musgrave’s Rorate coeli and Judith Weir’s Missa del Cid; the first two composed in the mid-1970s, the Weir from 1988 – with four shorter works, bookended by the Wood commemorative pieces, forming a satisfying arc. In 1946, when Wood’s ashes were interred here, William Walton set verses by the-then poet laureate John Masefield written in honour of Wood. Where does the uttered Music go? mitigates Masefield’s rather convoluted homilies with Walton’s intimate and subtle musical development, sounding radiant in this setting. To end, the BBC commissioned a complimentary work – this time setting the eight Masefield lines that are included in the stained-glass window to Wood that acts as the centrepiece of the side chapel – from Joanna Lee. The BBC Singers returned to the chapel for At this man’s hand, which starts with a high wordless descant through which the first line appears. Lee achieves a nice growing echo effect to the words “an echo of the Music without flaw” and had the benefit of more direct ideas in Masefield’s text.

The chapel had been inaugurated in 1955 with Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting, among others, the BBC Singers. This year, restoring a tradition that has been latent for two decades, the Sunday-morning directly after the Last Night of the Proms, the ‘chaplet’ that is put round Wood’s bust will be repositioned at this location.

Between the two Masefield settings the main part of the concert was sung from the Transept. The three longest works have medieval inspirations – Weir’s Missa del Cid from a Spanish telling of the Cid’s campaigns to regain the country for Christianity (here narrated by Charles Gibbs in English); Musgrave sets two texts from William Dunbar, who lived on the cusp of the early modern age; and Britten looking further back to medieval texts for Sacred and Profane – four of each. In between the Britten (supremely inventive) and Rorate coeli’s more tortuously convoluted text and music (Musgrave providing denser choral textures), was the simplicity of John Ireland’s The Holy Boy, an all-too-short palate cleanser. (Ireland is the subject of another stained-glass window at Holy Sepulchre.)

The three remaining short pieces prefaced Missa del Cid. Elizabeth Maconchy’s first of her Donne settings, and Vaughan Williams’s Valiant-for-truth (another Pilgrim’s Progress off-cut), were followed by BBC Proms Inspire composer Helena Paish’s Twilight. Setting a brief conjunction of lines by Sara Teasdale and Anne Brontë, which proved that – mature beyond her sixteen years – Paish already has a nice line in nostalgia, here with a tenor ending with “My heart is calling, calling, calling”.

The BBC Singers were on top form and the concert was a moving memorial to Henry Wood given in the church where he now rests, where his father was a tenor in the choir, and where Wood himself became assistant organist.

Playlist (not edited for house-style)
William Walton Where does the uttered music go?
Benjamin Britten Sacred and Profane
John Ireland The Holy Boy
Thea Musgrave Rorate coeli
Elizabeth Maconchy Three Donne Songs – No. 1: A Hymn to God the Father
Vaughan Williams Valiant-for-truth
Helena Paish Twilight [first performance]
Judith Weir Missa del Cid
Joanna Lee At this man’s hand [BBC commission: world premiere]

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