United Kingdom Purcell, Parry: Rebecca Wilkie & Benny Young (actors), Jack Furness (director), Stuart Hope (organ), SCO Chorus / Gregory Batsleer (conductor), Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 15.6.2017. (SRT)
Purcell – Anthems
Parry – Songs of Farewell
The SCO have had their own chorus for many years, but it’s only very recently that the chorus has developed its own concert series independent of the orchestra. That’s partly thanks to their director, Gregory Batsleer, who has taken them on in leaps and bounds in recent years (and is currently working similar wonders with the RSNO chorus up the road in Glasgow). They’re now a sufficient draw that in the 2016-17 season they’ve had two concerts of their own, this one and their Christmas show. So, never one to do things by the book, the SCO now have two concerts in their season that don’t feature the SCO!
The chorus’ qualities of precision, clarity and musical intelligence were writ large all over their Purcell sequence that began this concert, ‘Hear my Prayer’ and ‘Remember not, Lord’ moving with laser-like intensity through their emotional journeys, crowned by a top soprano line of keening purity. I might have wanted a little more light and shade in ‘Thou knowest, Lord’, which was perhaps a little unremitting, but the overall effect was lovely.
This was just a curtain-raiser for the main event, however: a semi-staged performance of Parry’s great Songs of Farewell. Batsleer and the chorus joined forces with director Jack Furness to create a theatre piece which probed into the text’s preoccupation with the end and the hereafter. Parry wrote his cycle at the very end of his life, while deeply disillusioned with the impact of the First World War, and in it he conjures up some of his most profoundly personal and deeply moving music, giving us a much deeper reflection of the man than tub-thumpers like ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘I Was Glad’.
Furness’ central idea is to intersperse the songs with a pair of actors, one young lady and one older man, who discuss their views on life and death from opposite ends of the human journey, punctuating it with readings from sources as diverse as Shakespeare, Woolf and Jung. Sometimes the readings seem tailored to the music: ‘Never Weather-Beaten Sail’ is prefaced by something from the sailor Bernard Moitessier, for example. More often, though, it’s the mood that seeks to chime, albeit with varied success. Varied as the readings were, they didn’t stray too far from the expected outlooks of youth and experience, and I found Furness’ interlinking dialogue a bit blustery and inconsequential.
I’ll forgive it, though, because I’m a sucker for the Songs of Farewell anyway, and I’ll welcome any attempt to engage with it in a new way, even if it doesn’t completely work. What the dialogue really made me do was to long even more for the music, so in that sense it was successful, and that music sounded magnificent. Hats off to the chorus, too, who were doing things well outside of their comfort zone, and mostly carrying them off very successfully. They changed from their black uniforms of the first half into their own civilian clothes, and milled around the stage doing lots of things that are out of the norm for them, such as singing from memory, breaking eye contact with their conductor, engaging directly with one another, and even doing some understated acting of their own. Most bravely of all, they sang ‘At the Round Earth’s’, the most challenging of all the songs, while spread all around the church in a huge circle, far from one another and their conductor, and carrying it off pretty brilliantly.
Elsewhere, the tightness of their blend really helped Parry’s rich harmonies come to life. ‘My soul, there is a country’ moved from post-Edwardian comfort into the rapturous pealings of “One who never changes”, and ‘There is an old belief’ sounded intensely involved, as though desperately testing the meaning that the song explores. ‘Lord, let me know mine end’ had a similar feel, making a profound, almost mystical conclusion to the cycle, particularly the sublime not-quite-peace of the final lines where Parry seems to reconcile his doubts with what he inwardly wishes were true.
For that final song, the performance space was empty of the actors, the music was allowed to speak for itself, and several members of the chorus were clearly visibly moved by the experience of singing it. Artifice seemed to have given way to reality at this point, which is perhaps the finest compliment you can pay the whole enterprise.