United Kingdom Bliss, Britten, Byrd, Elgar, Maxwell Davies, Mealor, Mendelssohn, Parry, Prince Albert, Purcell, Tomkins, Walton: BBC Singers / Paul Brough (conductor), Iain Farrington (organ), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 19.10.2012 (NS)
For their Swansea Festival concert, Power and Glory: Music for the Royal Court, the BBC Singers, in the hands of their guest conductor Paul Brough, standing in at short notice for David Hill, performed a series of works composed for or given at various royal occasions from the sixteenth century to the present day – coronations, weddings, etc. – starting with Byrd and Tomkins and proceeding right through to Mealor and Maxwell Davies. Inevitably, some of the works performed were musically rather constrained by the requirements placed on them for public and at times bombastic gesture, but a good number offered considerably more interest, proving themselves well worth revisiting and exploring. Particularly intriguing was Arthur Bliss’s Aubade for Coronation Morning, a rarely-revived contribution to the 1953 Garland for the Queen songbook; it found all sorts of striking things to do with cross-rhythm and birdsong effects, expertly negotiated by two of the choir’s sopranos, Emma Tring and Elizabeth Poole. Another appealing rarity was the A major Jubilate composed by Prince Albert, sprightly and more than competent; the choir’s encore, equally fascinating, was Albert’s setting of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, which (we were assured) pre-dated Mendelssohn’s by some years; who knows how different our Christmasses might have been had this piece not been so promptly superseded?
Elsewhere there were opportunities to compare very different settings of the same words – Purcell’s I was glad, for example, opening the programme and Parry’s ending it, the one light and dancing, the other swelling with grand patriotic satisfaction; and three settings of the Jubilate, Britten’s and Walton’s as well as Prince Albert’s, each presenting a different way of balancing the sense of the tradition being commemorated with the desire to find new forms of expression for it. That problem of balance was also exemplified in the two organ solos played with great aplomb by Iain Farrington: Elgar’s 1911 Coronation March followed by Walton’s 1937 Crown Imperial – the latter, in its organ rather than more familiar orchestral version, bringing out more distinctly, I thought, the mixture of solemn deference and man-of-the-street swagger so redolent of its time. Redolent of its time, too, was the very different idea of gravitas in the anthems by Byrd and Tomkins, with their soaring lines and complex textures conveying the kind of natural belief in what such music was doing that contemporary composers have to manage without.
The choir maintained its beautifully honed sound throughout, moving effortlessly from Mendelssohn to Mathias without ever suggesting that such varied pieces were being evened out to one dominant level – a risk sometimes attending choirs whose singing is almost too perfect. I cannot imagine a more effective ensemble for this repertoire, and since the concert was recorded for BBC Radio 3, I look forward to hearing it again.