Storgårds Conducts Stunning Evening of Choral Masterpieces

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Holst, Bernstein, Walton:  Mark Stone (baritone), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, CBSO Chorus (Chorus Master: Simon Halsey), CBSO Youth Chorus (Chorus Master: Julian Wilkins) / John Storgårds (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.4 2014. (RD)

John Storgårds 3b (photo Marco Borggreve)
John Storgårds 3b (photo Marco Borggreve)

Holst: The Hymn of Jesus
Bernstein: Chichester Psalms
Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast


This was a humdinger of a concert from the CBSO. First of all, it’s rare to get such a substantial choral programme from a British orchestra on a single night: three what can only be described as major works – each a choral masterpiece.

What about the poetry of those works – first Holst, then Old Testament Bernstein and Walton? Take Holst’s phenomenal extra-New Testament choice of an extract from the Apocryphal Gospel of St. John, which he evolves into a kind of ‘Lord of the Dance’ of his day, mixed in with a quasi-medieval Passion Play, with the suffering central figure uttering variants of ‘O vos omnes, qui transitis’. The opening hymn is sung in Latin, but the whole feel is Greek – almost a no-holds-barred Dionysiac Bacchanale. And he writes music to match.

The choir in this most sensitive of works, including the beautifully articulate girls of the very substantial Youth Chorus, really came up trumps. For instance, it is they who introduce the Prelude with its Easter Plainsong by the 6th century Merovingian bishop Venantius Fortunatus (Vexilla Regis prodeunt), rendered all the more scintillating by its lightly bell-like celeste accompaniment (the magic-fingered Russell Harrold – his mysterious contributions would grace The Lord of the Rings), taken up by the impressively in tune and on form CBSO Chorus tenors at Fortunatus’ ‘Pange Lingua: ‘Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle’. When the patient young choir resurfaces near the end for ‘Fain would I move to the music of holy souls’ it was just that – profoundly moving.

There are miraculous orchestral touches from Holst: the cellos’ and basses’ trundling descent amid the explosive ‘Glory to Thee, Father!’, to which are added a  kind of descanted trombones, then flutes, then massed woodwind – in determined contrary motion; or trumpets, horns and prominent timpani (Peter Hill the executant) playing over the upper strings for ‘Divine grace is dancing’. We even get a taste of Holst’s Neptune from The Planets at ‘Divine ye in dancing what I shall do’: not altogether surprisingly, as the latter (his op. 32), though not heard publicly till 1919, was composed in 1914-16, and The  Hymn of Jesus (op. 37) in 1917. The CBSO bassoons and trumpets wove marvels around this section, and the trumpet solo (principal Robert Farley) in the next was quite special.

There were other entrancing (or conversely, nerve-wracking) choral details: the sensational clashes at ‘To you who gaze, a lamp am I, To you who knock, a door….’; and the quite remarkable diminuendo Simon Halsey had nursed the whole choir to pull off at the close of that section. Add the very distinctive, carefully phased dynamic rise and fall of ‘Then shall ye know; What ye know not’, or the astonishing pointed vocal cluster – very brief, but telling musical colouring – on the word ‘wisdom’. The choir’s enunciation through all this was tip-top.

And who was the driving force behind all this? Conductor John Storgårds, one of those scions of Jorma Pakula (and Eri Klas’s) young maestros’ stable in Helsinki -: members of the enabling and fiery Finnish conductors’ mafia that includes Salonen, Saraste, the masterful Susanna Malkki and the CBSO’s own former Sakari Oramo, now well ensconced with the BBC Symphony Orchestra whom he conducts at this summer’s Proms, where he will also play the violin.

It was Storgårds who gave us the delightful contrasts of tone and timbre with which the Holst was replete; and who supplied that remarkable energy that fired ‘The Heav’nly Spheres make music for us’ passage, which he drove particularly impressively. He also teased out those eerie Planets-like touches and gave the work such a satisfying overall structure.

Having set Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms dancing on their way (the percussion has quite a dance of its own, pirouetting over reduced strings), he also  encouraged boy treble William Gardner, a teenage doyen of the legendary, and still matchless, Trinity Boys’ Choir (you should have seen their predecessors cavorting as the almost Hussar-like fairies in ENO’s multibedded, greensward A Midsummer Night’s Dream) through the Chichester Psalms’ testingly exposed and challenging Psalm 23 middle movement. If the voice is just beginning to strain, the breathing a fraction tricky in these long flowing lines, after years as one of their best choristers, Gardner’s sheer musicianship carried him through – a confidence and assurance beyond his years, which one suspects will see him fare well musically later on. Maybe we shall see more of him.

The lower voices did their snarling, gnashing bit with ‘Why do the nations rage..’, one of the most satisfying bits of choral flamboyance ever penned (Bernstein set the whole text, extracted from no less than six psalms, in Hebrew); with tom-toms and xylophone pattering away, it reached an exciting, brilliantly paced climax. But it was the orchestral interlude that followed that really showed the CBSO at its shiniest and most polished – something of an object-lesson in orchestral unanimity, eloquence and polish.

There was a brief disappointment in some solos from the choir – a bit ropy even tuning-wise – but no such thing from the cellos’ leader of the evening, Karen Stephenson, who produced a tone and elegant articulation that melted you on the spot. I’d like to hear her play the elegiac central solo from Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony (Schmidt himself was the Vienna Philharmonic’s chosen cello soloist under Mahler): she would be wonderful. As for the end, with bickering trumpets almost concealed in the textures, it was gorgeous.

Enough for one evening, you might think. But no, after the interval there was the whole of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast; and though its pacing never felt forced, with all that gloating and feasting and pagan boasting, it seemed to pass remarkably quickly. It was a hit at the Leeds Festival in 1931, and it certainly was here.

It’s famously crucial that not one male voice enters just too early at the opening (‘Thus spake Isaiah’); and here, well, there was only one! The ability of the choir to sing pianissimo en masse in the early passage was another feather in Halsey’s cap, with the conductor willing them on. The cellos and basses have a lot to do in this beefy partisan oratorio, and one of their successes was sustaining, restrainedly, baritone Mark Stone through his first solo (‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem’). The poetry is pretty terrific, whether the biblical original or Osbert Sitwell’s literary infill (young Walton was a cosseted protégé, in London and Italy, of all the Sitwells). And here and there, without overegging it, Walton introduces orientalised melismata not unlike Tavener or – perhaps more relevantly – as Britten did later for his creepy Astrologer in The Burning Fiery Furnace.

When we get to Sitwell’s hymnic bit (‘God of Gold…God of Wood…God of Brass) – slightly improbable, but huge fun – we are saturated by a kind of corrupt Benedicite. Alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon get their look in; James Burke’s clarinet positively screeched with impropriety. Percussion snaps and blips, and clops from wood blocks, abound. A riot of (as the notes put it) ‘onomatopoeic’ colour. No wonder the Lord (Jahweh – on our side) took a dim view of it all.

The resplendent additional brass (Beecham’s idea: here two septets, I believe, arrayed along both sides, high up) that toasts Belshazzar’s bluffing celebrates God’s inevitable triumph. Weighed in the balance, the oriental despot meets his  sticky end (double basses, low woodwind, flibbertigibbet flutes and piccolo see him off with an almost Bartókian atonal savagery – shades of Bluebeard.)The full-blooded chorus remained splendid thereafter, though Walton doesn’t: the penultimate (or middle of ultimate) section sounds like the thinnest of note-spinning. Yet at ‘Then trumpeters and pipers are silent, and the harpers have ceased to harp…’ he redeems himself, writing for them an alluring sequence like some succulent church anthem by Leighton or Hewitt-Jones – or Walton himself (The Twelve).

The most relishable, perhaps thrilling achievement of Storgårds’ conducting of the Walton came at the culmination, where in the final build up or recap he has to maintain a firm four in a bar while the bravado chorus sings effectively in three. The result produces excitement of almost fugal intensity, without being remotely banal. As the composer pops in a few whole tone scales to underline their whooping, he must have been feeling pleased with himself; for we are treated to a distinct burst – a sneak preview – of his First Symphony (which he was poised to embark on). Either he thought it a jolly good idea, and reused it, or his symphonic notepad jottings were already getting crammed.

Roderic Dunnett


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