United Kingdom Rachmaninov, Pärt and various composers: Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus / Gregory Batsleer (conductor). Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 17.12.2018. (SRT)
The SCO Chorus’s Christmas concert has become such an established part of the concert season that this year, for the first time, they put on an extra date due to huge demand. The advertised date (Thursday 20th) sold out weeks ago, so this concert was the extra, and Greyfriars was pretty packed for it.
The reason it is so popular is because the chorus has become a lot better in recent years. Under Gregory Batsleer not only has their sound improved, but they have broadened their repertoire, and this concert
too, combining Eastern Orthodox-influenced repertoire with more established western festive numbers. The big draw was the first six instalments of Rachmaninov’s Vespers which, interspersed with several more familiar moments, made up the first half.
On one level it was inspired, because the first thing that struck me about the opening number was its sense of high drama. Rachmaninov’s understanding of the Russian Orthodox tradition allowed him to write strident music that hit the heights of ecstatic religious devotion, but which could just as easily give way to poetic introspection, and that sense of theatre, coupled with the rhythm of the musical flow, made the Russian music the most convincing part of the concert. The carolling ‘Alleluias’ of ‘Blessed is the Man’ intensified that sense of drama as much as the warm flow of the famous ‘Rejoice, O Virgin’, and there was an equal sense of dramatic bite to Arvo Pärt’s setting of the same text, where the ebullience sounded like excited chatter.
In some ways that sense of drama spilt over into the other texts, too, with an uncommonly dramatic performance of ‘Gabriel’s Message’, and a lovely setting of Grieg’s ‘Ave maris stella’, whose interlocking lines supported the unfolding bright polyphony.
On the whole, though, I thought the Eastern numbers were a lot more successful than the Western ones. Some, such as ‘Away in a Manger’ or Holst’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ were too soft focused and didn’t grab my attention, almost as though there wasn’t as much rehearsal time for these. More worryingly, the pitching in some numbers had an unnerving tendency to slide. This has not been a problem with them before (and it wasn’t in the Rachmaninov), which made me wonder what went wrong. The sopranos could sing with ethereal beauty but were almost subsumed into a muddy ‘Rocking Carol’, and the tenors were slightly pinched on top in places. The basses, too, were the weak link in the Rachmaninov. In one sense that is hardly their fault when the composer calls for such subterranean singing, but if you don’t have basses that can go that low then it surely calls the repertoire choice into question.
Aside from an immersive body-of-the-kirk performance of Tavener’s ‘Hymn to the Mother of God’, in which the hanging suspensions were even more spine-tingling than usual, the most exciting non-Russian thing in the programme was a refreshingly energetic rendering of Pearsall’s ‘In Dulci Jubilo’, redolent with joy, where different lines cascaded in with the clarity of tolling bells. More of that would have been lovely.