Eclectic and Serious Programme of Music in the Abbey

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mozart: Steven Isserlis (cello), Sophie Pullen (soprano), Pablo Strong (tenor), Vytautas Vepstas (bass), Orchestra of St John’s, Orchestra of St John’s Voices / John Lubbock (conductor), Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames, 8.9.2013  (CR)

Mendelssohn Psalm No. 115, Op. 31
Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Bruckner Virga Jesse floruit; Locus iste;Ave Maria; Christus factus est
Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550


For the last concert in this year’s Music in the Abbey festival, chorus and orchestra came together to offer an eclectic and serious programme. With the exception of Mozart’s penultimate symphony, all the works consciously look back to the past, though they are also very much of their own time, and some unity was established by the sharing of the same tonality between Mendelssohn’s setting of the 115th Psalm and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.


There was a notably blustery opening to Psalm No 115 from the orchestra and choir in turn, which in style owed more to Handelian oratorio than to the rigour of Bachian counterpoint, the latter being a more prevalent influence later on in the work. The uncertain beginning gave way to a more settled mood in the section for solo tenor and soprano, sung with charm and delicacy by Sophie Pullen and Pablo Strong, while the expansive bass voice of Vytautas Vepstas offered words and tones of comfort thereafter. After the choir’s re-entry with solid eight-part harmony, they wound down to a quiet, inconclusive ending, which could perhaps have been more emphatic without losing a sense of mystery.


Steven Isserlis’s account of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations brought humour and grace both to the theme and more outgoing sections of the work, without sounding effete or sugary. For the slower variations and cadenza in the middle section of the work, Isserlis created a well-judged contrast with a glowingly autumnal, yearning tone which seemed as though it would countenance no leavening of mood. And yet he achieved that naturally enough in the ensuing variations by his playful rapport with the orchestra and lively despatch of the virtuosic passages, effected without exaggerated gestures. This was a highly satisfactory and fulfilling interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s mini concerto for cello, for which John Lubbock must also take credit for his direction of the whole.


In a selection of four of Bruckner’s a cappella motets there was a clear focus on the music’s intensity with its harmonic sequences often echoing those of his symphonies. Phrases were shaped expressively and meaningfully, though more space could have been given to allow the music to blossom more and a greater atmosphere of spirituality to accrue to it. Although Dorchester Abbey has a long and tall nave, it is true that there is not as much of an acoustic as one might expect, since the nave is fairly narrow, and the south aisle parallel to it is essentially blocked up halfway along its own length with a wall opened up only by a small doorway. But even so, the performance of these motets might have attempted to exploit the considerable space inside the Abbey. Happily there were appropriate pauses of silenced awe in the threefold invocation of “Jesus” in the Ave Maria as the chords spread out more broadly on each utterance; Locus iste flowed organically; and the big chords at the climax of Christ factus est on “quod est super omne nomen” (triple forte!) were dramatic.


The performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 managed to be driven and insistent, without becoming rushed or frenetic, however much Lubbock sought to push the music on, for instance in the recapitulation of the first movement or the determined, repeated two-note figure which is developed in the second movement. As a result the work exuded a sense of ineluctable tragedy, alongside the elegance and grace of its classical form, demonstrating that passion can be expressed eloquently without resorting to sensational or raw means. With an orchestra which was not quite two dozen in number, the performance revealed more clearly some of the work’s instrumental colours, such as the oboes and clarinets almost wailing in the first movement’s first subject, and the chamber-like intimacy of the second movement’s opening quavers and melody, calling to mind the similar emotional context of the slow movement of the G minor String Quintet K516 composed not long before this symphony. Little relief was afforded by the symphony’s third movement, and the violin’s sharp attack on its high notes which cut dissonantly across the countervailing theme in the winds, with no let-up in tempo in the Trio section. The finale drove its determined course to the end, not hindered by the observation of repeats. Even after the grandiloquence of the earlier pieces featuring the choir or Isserlis’s captivating virtuosity, this made for a stirring culmination to the programme.

Curtis Rogers