Truly Mystical Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grainger, Vaughan Williams: Anna Dennis (soprano), William Towers (counter-tenor), Nick Pritchard (tenor), William Dazeley (baritone), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Jonathan Heyward and Steve Devine (conductors). Hoddinot Hall, Cardiff, 18.4.2019. (PCG)

Rimsky-Korsakov – Overture, Russian Easter Festival
GraingerBlithe Bells
Vaughan WilliamsFive Mystical Songs
BachEaster Oratorio

Maybe it is a reflection of the natural pessimism of struggling composers, but there can surely be no gainsaying the fact that musical inspiration throughout the ages has produced far more works on the subject of Christ’s passion and death than on his resurrection. Or maybe that is simply a reflection of the accounts in the Gospels themselves, where the evangelists give us long and circumstantial accounts of the trial and its aftermath but restrict themselves to fragmentary anecdotes (and those sometimes self-contradictory) regarding the joyful news. Then again performances in this modern and more sceptical secular age clearly display the same disbalance. Bach’s two Passion settings comprehensively trounce the outings given to his Easter Oratorio. It was therefore something of a novelty for BBC Wales to produce a concert during Holy Week in which the emphasis was laid entirely on the events of Easter, and an entirely appropriate one on such a beautiful spring evening. In point of fact, as Nicola Haywood Thomas explained before the concert began, the programme was being recorded for transmission on the following Easter Monday; but it was a nice thought nonetheless.

A brief introductory word on the history of Bach’s Easter Oratorio is perhaps in order, even if the events have to be simplified. In 1725 Bach first presented the music in a liturgical context. He adapted numbers from two secular cantatas and included some elements of narrative recitative in which the four soloists were identified with specific Biblical characters. Ten years later he reshaped the work. He now gave it the title of oratorio, deleted the named roles given to the soloists and made alterations to the scoring, including the re-allocation of the opening vocal number from its original form as a tenor-bass duet to the chorus. (Subsequently published scores combined the two, which seems a sensible compromise.) What we were given here, however, was not Bach’s final ‘oratorio’ version, but his original extended church cantata. The full-length duet was reinstated and the work of the choir therefore confined to a relatively brief closing section. We were also given the soprano aria Seele, deine Spezereien with its obbligato accompaniment allocated to solo ‘flauto traverso’ rather than Bach’s alternative for ‘violino solo’; but then the succeeding tenor aria Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer, specified by Bach for two flutes ‘a bec’ (that is, recorders) was allocated to a pair of orchestral flutes. Much as I always enjoy Matthew Featherstone’s flute playing, to have the identical colour in the obbligato of two successive and extended arias suffered from lack of contrast. Combined with the prolonged series of largely meditative da capo arias before the final chorus, this lent some credence to reported complaints from Bach’s contemporary congregations about the composer’s music being over-lengthy.

It was interesting to hear the work in this version, although Lindsay Kemp’s programme note and the printed texts in the booklet both suggested that what we were to be given was the 1735 revision complete with opening chorus, which might well have been preferable in this context. Given that we were hearing the piece as Bach originally wrote it, it seemed perverse to allocate the role of Mary Magdalene to a counter-tenor, even though William Towers sang forthrightly and made something of a highlight of his high-lying aria Saget mir. The solo singing throughout was crisp and accurate, if somewhat placid. Then again, the texts do not engender a great deal in the way of empathy, lacking the sense of emotional involvement to be found in the Bach Passions. Steven Devine, stepping in at the last moment for an indisposed Jonathan Cohen, kept the music moving along, and brought plenty of ebullience to the opening and closing movements with their stratospheric trumpet fanfares.

The first half of the concert had consisted of three further works celebrating the joyful aspects of Easter. First, we had Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, a superbly scored set of variations on Russian orthodox chants scored with all that master’s ebullient mastery of orchestration. The sense of involvement which the original audiences would have felt with the familiar thematic material is inevitably missing, but Jonathan Heyward (assuming the baton for the first part of the evening) gave the music plenty of the sheer panache that was needed, not least from the vulgar trombones evoking the atmosphere of peasant rejoicing in the streets. By contrast, Percy Grainger’s Blithe Bells formed an almost chaste comparison, although his increasingly free ‘ramble’ through the music of Bach’s Sheep may safely graze brought plenty of delightful surprises in its own turn. Grainger’s score is littered with instructions in his own inimitable style (in three consecutive bars, ‘slacken ever so slightly…slacken more…slacken lots’). The conductor kept the rubato within reasonable bounds, which may not have been the composer’s intention but kept the music from losing rhythmic shape altogether.

Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs, relatively short but elaborately scored for baritone, chorus and orchestra, are not common fare in the concert repertory. They should be, for they constitute one of the composer’s most heartfelt emotional scores. The finale may perhaps teeter over into the realms of RVW in his mood of bucolic rejoicing (it comes over better in the composer’s substantially reworked version for solo voice and piano); the earlier four have all the ‘cathedral atmosphere’ of the Tallis Fantasia, with their sense of incense-laden mysticism and even the quotation of the plainchant melody of O sacrum convivium at the end of the third song. This is one of those moments when, as a composer, I can recognise exactly what buttons the writer is pushing to achieve their desired emotional effect, without feeling the slightest degree of resentment at the way in which my feelings are being manipulated, and indeed wallowing in the moment: the sort of instant engagement one feels with Puccini, Richard Strauss, Elgar or Wagner, but more rarely elsewhere. Mind you, even those sorts of moment can be ruined by an unfeeling or wrong-headed interpretation or production, as is alas too often the case nowadays. But William Dazeley did not put a foot wrong, and his delivery of the text produced exactly the right tightening of the throat and moisture in the eye that we needed at this point. The choral singing too had plenty of body. It showed the influence of the Sea Symphony completed the year before, and demonstrated how much Vaughan Williams really benefits from the presence of a large body of singers. Paradoxically, it becomes easier for a large choir (as opposed to smaller body) to achieve the extremes of delicacy required at the end of the third song where the composer seemingly unrealistically asks for them to sing ‘pppp senza espress’. Jonathan Heyward too brought out wonders of subtlety even in the boisterous closing movement, and his handling of the series of protracted key changes at the end of the first movement evoked a sense of both peace and awe-struck wonder as we moved in four bars from C-sharp minor to B-flat minor before resolving in E minor.

As I noted earlier, this concert is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Easter Monday, and will be available on the BBC Sounds for a further month after that. Bach aficionados will welcome the opportunity to hear an edition of the Easter Oratorio which returns in many ways to the 1725 original, but the performance of the Vaughan Williams was the real highlight of this evening. The hall, as seems usual these days for choral concerts, was packed with hardly an empty seat to be seen.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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