United Kingdom Parry, Ravel, Respighi and Walton: Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Barts Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra / Ivor Setterfield (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 17.5.2018. (AS)
Parry – I was glad
Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No. 2
Respighi – Pini di Roma
Walton – Belshazzar’s Feast
Who could ever imagine that Parry’s anthem I was glad when they said unto me would be the first item performed in two Festival Hall concerts on successive Thursdays? But this has happened.
The Barts Choir is an unusual organisation in that welcomes singers without an audition and it is not necessary for them to be able to read music. Since 1996 it has been conducted by Ivor Setterfield. It is a very large group, but the volume of sound it produced, on this occasion at least, even at full stretch, was rather less than one would usually expect from so many voices. Ensemble was good throughout the concert and there were few examples of woolly textures and remarkably few loose ends. It is a tribute to Ivor Setterfield that he has been able to train an ensemble which no doubt has many inexperienced or even inexpert singers into a body that can cope pretty well with such a demanding work as Belshazzar’s Feast. It has one defect, and that is occasional lapses of intonation in passages where there is a sustained vocal line.
Setterfield took a slightly faster and a more appropriate basic tempo for I was glad than Adrian Partington the previous week (review), but sadly the section where a sub-group makes its tribute to the monarch in a series of fortissimo “Vivats” was omitted on this occasion, for it is perhaps the most striking part of the piece. The programme note suggested that this section is only sung at Coronation services (the work was written for Edward VII’s Coronation in 1902), but this is by no means true.
Such a demanding programme was no doubt prepared on a tight rehearsal schedule so far as the orchestra was concerned, and the performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 had a slightly uncertain quality, though it was well conducted and there were some nice woodwind contributions, especially in the lengthy solo flute passage. The wordless choral contributions didn’t make as much impact as they should have done.
In Pini di Roma the playing was much more assured: in fact, it was a very impressive performance throughout, with potent atmosphere created in the third movement nocturne “The Pines of the Janiculum” (unlike in another recent Festival Hall performance we heard the recorded sounds of the nightingale as specified in the score), and terrific energy both in the opening of the work and in the final depiction of a tramping Roman Legion along the Appian Way.
And so to Belshazzar’s Feast. In this work the Philharmonia played with tremendous spirit under Setterfield’s energetic direction, the tempi and pacing of the music were all just as they should have been, and the choir sang with tremendous enthusiasm and no little skill. And in Ashley Riches the performance had the best soloist I have yet heard in this work. His sense of drama was potent, his diction was as clear as could be, and unlike many of his colleagues, who have frequently come to grief in the two tricky recitatives, his preservation of pitch in these passages was better than most, if not perfect.
For those of us who like an occasional wallow in works played by big orchestras and choirs with lots of high decibels involved, this was a splendid concert.