Exceptional Rachmaninov from Halsey and London Symphony Chorus

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tallis, Mealor, Mathias, Rachmaninov;  London Symphony Chorus, Jeffrey Howard (organ), Simon Halsey (conductor),  St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 11.5.2014 (GPu)

Tallis: Spem in Alium
Mealor, Ubi Caritas
Mathias, Let the people praise Thee, O God
Tallis: Spem in Alium
Rachmaninov Vespers / All Night Vigil


 Two of the towering masterpieces of the choral repertoire – by Tallis and Rachmaninov and two pieces by modern Welsh composers – Paul Mealor and William Mathias,  the highly disciplined chorus of the LSO and one of the finest choral directors/conductors of our time – Simon Halsey: a perfect recipe.! But, in a country with a genuine love of choirs and their music (a love that goes well beyond the cliché of male voice choirs) there were fewer ‘diners’ than one expected to be present. Perhaps the slightly unusual time (5 pm on a Sunday) contributed to the relative thinness of the audience (though this was an informed and appreciative gathering). Those who were there were blessed with some superb singing and more than a few memorable moments.

My one reservation was that the sheer size of the choir – approaching 130 voices – while well-suited to the Rachmaninov, inescapably made it a little on the cumbersome side in one or two of the other items on the programme.

Performances of Thomas Tallis’s consistently amazing Spem in Alium opened and closed the first half of the programme – the second half being given over to Rachmaninov. It is always quite an experience to hear Spem in Alium – not just one of the great choral works or even just one of the greatest works by an Englishman, but a great musical work tout court.  Precise details as to how it came to be written and when it was first performed are lacking. Certainly it was, in some sense, ‘inspired’ by the 1567 visit to London by the Italian composer Alessandro Striggio and the performance of his forty-part motet Ecce beatem lucem. Tallis’s response (which may have been commissioned by Thomas Howard, fourth Earl of Norfolk and Henry Fitzalan, twelfth Earl of Arundel) may well have been performed at Arundel House on the Strand and perhaps also, intriguingly, in the banqueting hall of Norfolk’s Nonsuch Palace. This was octagonal and had first-floor balconies, which would have allowed for the eight distinct ‘choirs’ (each of five voices) deployed in  Spem in Alium to be disposed spatially. On this occasion Halsey’s eight choirs, were arranged in a large semi-circular arc across the stage of St. David’s Hall. One could thus use one’s eyes to supplement what one’s ears told one of the interplay of voices. The nobility and monumentality of the work was certainly potently realised in this slightly ‘heavy’ reading, but there were, perhaps inevitably, given the number of singers, passages when textures became uncomfortably dense and contrapuntal structures became very hard to discern (this was especially true of the closing passage after the major chord on ‘respice’). Still, it remained a work of great beauty and power – its slow harmonic shifts perhaps all the more effective with such a large choir – and a striking exemplification of the sheer technical skill of this Chorus.

One theory has it that Spem in Alium was written for the fortieth birthday of Elizabeth I in 1573, but no firm proof of this exists. The royal collection is indisputable where Paul Mealor’s Ubi Caritas is concerned. It was written for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in April 2011. The motet is Mealor’s reworking of his earlier setting of Blake’s poem ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’, using the text of the ancient hymn ‘Ubi Caritas’, traditionally associated with the ceremony of the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday. Mealor’s setting of the Latin text was a decided ‘hit’ in the broadcast of the royal wedding and the composer attracted more public attention than he had previously received. That the work should have found public favour is neither surprising nor underserved. Although quite sophisticated harmonically, the piece is eminently accessible, even at a single hearing, its textures not too complex (certainly not when heard directly after Spem in Alium!). Mealor’s writing for lower voices (and most of the voices are predominantly heard in their lower registers, is expressive and subtle, while the hushed and reverential middle section of the work is strikingly beautiful; the unfussy and unforced quotation of the original Gregorian chant near the work’s close works powerfully. Again, there were moments when one wondered whether the large forces used were not a little too big for he good of the music; certainly a choir of this size, had it been directed with less sensitivity and intelligence and had its singers not been so well-trained, would surely been excessive. This, however, was a reading that had subtlety and respect, with contrasts of dynamics well-judged and expressive, without ever being self-indulgent.

It was actually in the performance of William Mathias’s ‘Let the People Praise thee O God’ that scale did matter. Another piece with strong royal connections (it was written for the 1981 wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer) Mathias’s G major setting of a text taken from Psalm 67 is ebullient and bright, full of agility and changes of direction and tempo, not least in the organ part, excellently played here by Jeffrey Howard. Once or twice the sheer number of singers made transitions a bit of a struggle and some of the music’s agility and fleetness of foot was lost. But few hearing (or rehearing) this piece could surely have failed to enjoy it, and the beautiful variety of tone that the choir brought to it, and perhaps to suspect, like me, that Mathias is a composer who generally gets rather less than his proper due these days.

A second performance of Spem in Alium, though one was certainly better equipped to pick up on some of its many subtleties second time around, didn’t make me radically change the feelings expressed above. One thought it prompted was that like most great masterpieces in the arts Spem in Alium manages, paradoxically, to be at one and the same time highly artificial (full of art) and absolutely natural (being faithful to fundamental truths of human nature).

For all its origins in a world (that of the Russian Orthodox church) alien to most of us, the same paradox holds true of Rachmaninov’s Vespers (as the programme for this concert, billed it, and under which title it is often referred to, though it might better be referred to as the All Night Vigil, tracing as it does the shape of a service sometimes used in the Russian Orthodox Church on the eve of certain Sundays or of major liturgical feasts. In the service the liturgy appropriate to three of the canonical hours (Vespers, Matins and the first hour) is conjoined, so that there is a movement, with all that it suggests, symbolically and doctrinally, through the descent of darkness to the renewal of light.

Such slight reservations as I had had about the first half of this programme were altogether swept away by this compelling and moving performance of Rachmaninov’s extraordinary and beautifully integrated work (the perfection of that integration making it puzzling that on this occasion No.11 ‘The Magnificat’ should have been omitted). Hearing this work, so well sung, made me wish (as listening to it previously  has also done) – no doubt somewhat heretically – that less of Rachmaninov’s energy should subsequently have been expended on the keyboard and the orchestra. This is thrilling music, simultaneously thoroughly theatrical (it was premiered in a Moscow theatre rather than a church, in 1915) and wholly imbued with a profound spirituality, both showy and sacred – and, to stunning effect, the London Symphony Chorus and Simon Halsey did something like justice to it. The basses of the LSO Chorus coped remarkably well with the demands that Rachmaninov’s score makes on them, even if they didn’t quite have that spine-shivering quality that one hears in, for example, the 1965 recording by the State Academic Russian Choir of the USSR, conducted by Aleksandr Sveshnikov. The unnamed alto and tenor soloists from within the choir acquitted themselves very well, most especially the alto in ‘Bless the Lord, O my Soul’, who had a thoroughly authentic Russian quality in both tone and phrasing. In the opening ‘Call to Worship’ it was immediately apparent that the size of the choir was here a real advantage, the sound not at all overblown, but carrying great authority and a comforting sense of power held in reserve, so that there was no sense of strain or of voices at their limit. In ‘Blessed is the Man’, with its use of the chant established within the Russian Orthodox Church, the sense of calm ease was almost overwhelming and the ‘Evening Hymn of Light’ which follows was especially beautiful, its rhythmic changes complementing the simplicity of its generative chant (from the Kiev tradition), a movement full of the resonant paradoxes implicit in a hymn to divine light being sung more or less at the moment when earthy light must have been losing out to encroaching earthly darkness. When the solo tenor sang the chant, a semitone higher, midway through the movement, what might have seemed a ‘mere’ theological point took on a force and weight of personal experience, only for the return of the full choir with the chant at its original pitch to universalise the personal and enact the reassurance of faith in the Holy Light.

It is the fifth movement, the Nunc Dimittis, that Rachmaninov makes one of his most extreme demands on his basses as, at its close they have to make a controlled descent, very quietly, to a low B flat. Movement after movement brought both its own delights and beauties, and a continuing and growing sense of the work’s large design and profundity. It would be otiose to comment on each movement, when the standard was uniformly high and grippingly persuasive. For me, further highlights included the Gloria (based on a chant from the Znamenny tradition), an intense piece of rhapsodic praise, full of striking dynamic contrasts and the sequence which closes the work,  two Resurrection Hymns and the ‘First hour’ (“Chosen leader of triumphant hosts”). In the first Resurrection Hymn, the note of celebration felt both specifically Christian and cosmic, in the second the air was of a sublime serenity, articulated in some of the most purely ‘beautiful’ singing of a fine convert, before the work came to its affirmative close in a movement full of vivid colours and punchy rhythms, making a very meaningful contrast with its immediate predecessor. I have heard only one previous live performance of this work, by a distinguished choir, but this performance revealed subtleties in the work’s design and beauties in its details, that had hitherto escaped me, both in that performance and listening to more than one recording. A genuine triumph.

Quite apart from the quality of the music on offer, and the high standard to which it was performed, one of the lesser (but real) pleasures of the programme came in Simon Halsey’s spoken introductions, highly perceptive, amusing, quite without condescension and thoroughly charming. How about a TV series in which he introduces performances of the major choral repertoire?

Glyn Pursglove

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