Songs of Despair and Sorrow … Rothko Chapel

Songs of Despair and Sorrow
Four Songs for double chorus, Op.141
Rothko Chapel

Amy Freston (soprano)

BBC Singers

Nash Ensemble
Martyn Brabbins
Stephen Cleobury [Schumann]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Late-night proms have long yielded some of the most imaginative programmes. A choral concert with a difference, it opened with a welcome 80th-birthday tribute to György Kurtág. “Songs of Despair and Sorrow” was completed in 1996, after a more than fifteen-year gestation. These settings of Russian poets (all relatively short-lived, save for the indomitable Anna Akhmatova) embody some of the composer’s starkest, most plangent vocal writing – though to attribute this solely to the ill-fated lives of the actual poets is to overlook the implosive nature of Kurtág’s means of expression. Moreover, the instrumental ensemble – which features two harmoniums and four bayans (Russian accordions) alongside its complement of brass, strings and percussion – is less remarkable for its striking constitution than for the way in which it is drawn into the chorus as if a textural extension of what is being communicated. This quality was impressively borne out by this performance, in which the BBC Singers and the Nash Ensemble were effortlessly integrated, Martyn Brabbins ensuring the music’s rhythmic intricacy was evident throughout.

In the concert hall, as opposed to the recital room, Schumann has been less celebrated in the 150th year since his death than might have been expected. A good opportunity, then, to revive one of the most significant works of his large if uneven output for a cappella chorus. Although the “Four Songs” (1849) were written in the wake of Dresden’s involvement with the civil unrest that swept across Europe in 1848, Schumann’s settings are essentially philosophical reflections on the inner liberation towards which his thoughts often turned during his last years of creativity.

Interestingly, the two central choruses, to texts by the little-remembered Joseph Christian von Zediltz are the more affecting in their simpler but subtle expression than the over-wrought Rückert setting that opens the sequence, or that by Goethe which forms a fervently affirmative close; and one cannot help wondering whether Schumann almost missed the point of a text that does seem to embody a distinctly Goethian irony. Superbly directed by Stephen Cleobury, the settings effectiveness as choral music was yet never in doubt.

Although the Royal Albert Hall and the non-denominational chapel at the University of St Thomas in Houston may have little in common as architecture, the former proved an ideal acoustic in which to perform Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” (1971) – this composer’s most played major work, and an apt enrichment of the interaction between art, architecture and light – which, given that the piece was composed barely a year after Mark Rothko’s suicide, makes for a thoughtful (however incidental)commemoration.

Characteristically slow-moving, the minutely-varied repetition of vocal harmonies and the sparing but exquisitely judged contributions of celesta and percussion – each aptly evoking the calm but implacable nature of the environs – ensure a meditative and spiritual experience like few others. At 29 minutes, the performance, under Brabbins, was long-breathed and unerringly sustained – with Amy Freston’s airy vocal contribution as finely attuned as were Richard Benjafield’s percussion contribution and Paul Silverthorne’s rapt viola playing, while the dynamic sensitivity of the BBC Singers readily evoked an acoustic entity that emerged and receded in time and space. A magical end to a rewarding concert.

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