BBC Singers in an Edinburgh concert with a wide range of music that was as appealing as it was varied

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2022 [3] – Mendelssohn, Martin, Ešenvalds, Harris, Vaughan Williams, Ore, Byss-Kalle: Laura Samuel (violin), BBC Singers / Sofi Jeannin (conductor). Queen’s Hall, 9.8.2022 (SRT)

The BBC Singers © Ryan Buchanan

Mendelssohn – Six motets, Op.79
Martin – Mass for double choir
EšenvaldsAncient Prairie
HarrisBring us, O Lord God
Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending (arr. Paul Drayton)
OreToil & Trouble
Byss-KalleSlängpolska efter Byss-Kalle (arr. Hans Gardemar)

The BBC Singers form a bit of a Cinderella service when it comes to the corporation’s musical output. I cannot be the only person whose mind goes instantly to the BBC’s five professional orchestras when I think about their musical provision, with an afterthought for the big amateur choruses. The chamber-sized professional chorus might bring up the rear in public consciousness, but they are a class act nonetheless. Most of the time when I have heard them before, in person or on the radio, they have been singing some fairly astringent modern music (they are one of the UK ensembles who can reliably and consistently give that sort of repertoire the energy and professionalism it needs), but not today. This concert was a wide range of music that was as appealing as it was varied.

The sacred settings were a treat, for one thing. In an age like ours that puts doubt at the centre of even its religious art, there’s something almost radical about the steadfast Lutheran certainty you hear in Mendelssohn’s religious motets. These six, composed for different seasons of the church year, ring with the certainty of hope, be it for the joy of Christmas or the calm contemplation of Passiontide, and they were sung here with brightness and deliberate conviction that matched the music. Frank Martin’s Mass for double choir had every bit as much faithful affirmation, but it is shrouded in the more searchingly personal harmonies of the twentieth century. However, strength and depth rang out in the bell-like intonations of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, as well as the deeply personal faith journey of the Gloria. William Harris’s Bring us, O Lord God sounded terrific heard in the close acoustic of the Queen’s Hall rather than the vaulted surroundings of a cathedral.

The matching secular works were sung with every bit as much warmth and power. Violinist Laura Samuel, most frequently seen around these parts as the leader of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, joined the chorus for two of them. Paul Drayton’s arrangement of The Lark Ascending doesn’t touch the violin line but arranges the orchestral parts for a chorus who are mostly wordless until the central section which sets some of George Meredith’s poem. It’s an interesting novelty, but I didn’t warm to it. The whole appeal of Vaughan Williams’s piece lies in its evocation of a lost world that perhaps, never was. That is helped by the slightly distant sound of an orchestra playing quietly, and the singers break the spell by bringing it closer to the ear than it would otherwise be. I much more enjoyed Ērik Ešenvalds’s Ancient Prairie, a gorgeous melody with folk-like harmonisations over which the violin quietly soars at the end.

Byss-Kalle’s Slängpolska ended the programme with a jolly Swedish folk dance whose wordless vocalisations had the chorus doing an inadvertent impression of the Swingle Swingers. Before this, however, came the most dazzlingly virtuosic part of the concert, Cecile Ore’s Toil & Trouble. Ore takes selections from Shakespeare, all of which contemplate the brevity and fragility of human life, and sets them to a range of rapid-fire, biting musical lines that come across like volleys of aural grapeshot in their merciless depiction of mankind’s futility. Range, colour, tone and even some witchy vocalisations didn’t just bring the text to life but gave it a gripping energy, all the while sung with brilliantly focused blend and perfect intonation.

Simon Thompson

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen again on BBC Sounds until 7 September 2022. The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 29th August at a variety of venues across the city. Click here for details.

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