Let All The World In Every Corner Sing: Harry Bicket returns to Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Haydn, Vaughan Williams, Garcia: Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Harry Bicket (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 22.3.2024. (PCG)

BBC NOW’s Let All The World In Every Corner Sing: Conductor Harry Bicket (above) and Baritone Julien Van Mellaerts (below)

GarciaZemira: Overture (1803)
Bach – Cantata No.82 ‘Ich habe genug’ (1727)
Haydn – Symphony No.26 ‘Lamentatione’ (1768)
Vaughan WilliamsFive Mystical Songs (1911)

This assorted programme, named after George Herbert’s hymn by the same title and loosely woven around the theme of Easter, was played in Cardiff two days before Palm Sunday. It opened with a real novelty: an overture by José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767-1830). Born in Rio de Janeiro as the son of slaves, he rose through the ranks of the church to assume charge of music at the Portuguese royal court when it was forced to flee to Brazil in 1808.

It is unclear if the overture was written for an opera – no such work has been discovered – but it clearly has dramatic origins, The composer described it as ‘expressing lightning and thunderstorms’. This is not a missing masterpiece. It almost entirely comprises depictive rushing passages for woodwind and strings, not even timpani, and has an annoying habit of stopping and starting without warning. After three or four minutes, the whole of the musical content is literally repeated, and a brief coda depicts the restoration of calm. This clearly anticipates similar storm music in Rossini’s operas (La Cenerentola and The Barber of Seville) but it has no more serious pretensions even if it is good fun.

Haydn, on the other hand, clearly intended his ‘Lamentatione’ Symphony to be taken very seriously indeed. The first movement is apparently conventional enough, with sprightly syncopated passage-writing for the strings, but a plainchant-derived melody underpins the bustle. The following Adagio gives us another solemn plainchant, which the first violins decorated with a flickering filigree accompaniment that occasionally leapt for a moment into an upper octave. Conductor Harry Bicket clearly relished the joyous first movement, but he insisted on suppressing vibrato on the strings in the slow movement. As a result, the emotional warmth which Haydn seems to have expected was sacrificed to a more repressed delivery (that would indeed be a valid manner of treating the music). Also, those little leaps an octave sometimes failed to make a distinct mark. For some reason, Bicket also omitted the marked repeat of the second half of the movement, and that shifted the relative weight of the symphony as a whole. At least the final movement, a cheeky offbeat minuet which fades unexpectedly into silence at the end, was delicious in Haydn’s best humorous style.

The New Zealand baritone Julien Van Mellaerts joined a slimmed-down orchestra for the Bach cantata. The BBC National Chorus of Wales was on hand for Vaughan Williams’s songs, so it felt odd to select a cantata which excluded the choir: it only consists of three consecutive arias with joining recitative. Nor did I get the impression that the soloist was quite suited to the tessitura of his part. Its descents to sustained low G seem to require a deep bass singer rather than the higher voice of a baritone. Here the voice appeared to submerge altogether below B flat. It did not help that Bicket seemed to encourage the orchestra to play with full tone. The oboe obligato, beautifully phrased by Steve Hudson, dominated the textures in the first aria, even if my seat was considerably nearer the singer a few rows back in the body of the hall.

Van Mellaerts definitely came into his own in the performance of the Five Mystical Songs. Vaughan Williams did not make the best case for his own work. He insisted on publishing the songs in a variety of versions, ranging from baritone and piano to (as here) baritone, chorus and a fairly substantial orchestra. It is more common to hear the songs performed with organ, with or without chorus, than with orchestra, but only in the fullest form does the work emerge as a series of settings of genius. Van Mellaerts has already proved in recital his sympathy and engagement with the composer; there is a marvellously dramatic recital performance of the complete Songs of Travel on YouTube. Here his range of dynamics gave a glorious ring to such passages as ‘such a Joy, as none can move’ in The Call rising to a climactic high F. The composer has sprinkled the score with whole rafts of expressive marks, gloriously and faithfully realised here. Once again, however, problems with balance arose when the singer attempted to match Vaughan Williams’s specification of quieter dynamics. (Oddly, the printed programme supplied us with the words in George Herbert’s original spelling. Vaughan Williams’s score amended it to conform to modern usage; that is the form I have adopted in this review.)

Harry Bicket seemed to make little effort to restrain the rich and enthusiastic orchestral playing. That made for exciting results in the closing Antiphon but robbed the final pages of Love bade me welcome of its extraordinary atmosphere. The score is marked ppp senza cresc. and the wordless choral parts of the plainchant ‘O sacrum convivium’ even more emphatically pppp senza espress. Everything was far too palpable, too forward, and the baritone line ‘You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat’ – it should break one’s heart – missed its target. In Easter, Vaughan Williams employs the harp at the words ‘Awake, my lute’, but that similarly failed to register against the woodwinds. And in the same way Bicket maintained again an onward orchestral pace throughout the extraordinary final five bars of the first song, where the orchestral key seems to rise enharmonically into ever more mysterious spheres. Here, they were simply smooth and imperturbable – at another moment when the hair should rise on the back of your neck. Such minor details in no way diminished the general effect, but that sort of things distinguishes a great performance from a merely effective one.

It may well be that listeners at home will have some advantage over those in the hall. The BBC engineers will surely be able to adjust the internal balances to give the audience a more satisfactory experience. I suspect that those sitting further back than I was may well have found the subtler points in his interpretation less satisfactorily distinguishable. I will certainly listen to the relay on BBC Radio 3 scheduled for 13 May – perhaps odd for an Easter-oriented programme, but never mind – and the broadcast will be available on BBC Sounds thereafter. Apparently the first three items on the programme were filmed for future release in the BBC NOW Digital Concert series; I would have preferred the Vaughan Williams to the Bach.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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