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Chamber Prom 6, BBC Singers conducted by Sakari Oramo: <em>The Sense of an Ending</em>
21 Aug 2018

The Sense of an Ending: the BBC Singers and Sakari Oramo

We are accustomed to seeing Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo at the helm of a large orchestra, baton in hand, guiding the instrumentalists with unassuming but precise authority and expressive, communicative musicianship.

Chamber Prom 6, BBC Singers conducted by Sakari Oramo: The Sense of an Ending

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sakari Oramo

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

 

However, this lunchtime Prom recital at Cadogan Hall by the BBC Singers showed that he is just as at home before a 24-voice a cappella choir, his open hands as light and elegant as a bird’s wing, his gestures free, natural and masterly in crafting impassioned swells, finely graded fades and wonderfully responsive presentation of the poetic texts presented in this sequence of English part-songs, predominantly dating from early twentieth century but also including a new work by Laura Mvula commissioned by the BBC.

Oramo has been Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 2013 - fittingly his first performance as Chief Conductor came during that year’s Prom season - and during his tenure he has presided over many performances involving the BBC Singers, but this was the first time that he had conducted the ensemble a cappella. The repertoire seemed to represent both Oramo’s own love of British music, which developed during the ten years, 1998-2008, he spent as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and the singers’ own musical heritage. One imagines that many must have encountered these works during their early training in the country’s cathedral establishments. Certainly, they were perfectly attuned to the idiom and the result was an exquisite, blemish-free, consistent like-mindedness which was both a glory and, perhaps, a slight weakness.

For, the programme, entitled The Sense of an Ending, presented a largely homogenous autumnal sobriety and it was delivered with polite gentility and restraint, the sound never other than lovely but perhaps lacking in diversity. And this was a pity in Mvula’s Love Like a Lion, which offered plentiful opportunity for impassioned colouring of the melody and rhythmic drama, and which invited a freedom of expression which the BBC Singers did not fully embrace.

The recital opened with Frank Bridge’s strophic setting of Shelley’s ‘Music, when soft voices die’. Though unpublished until 1979, the work was composed in 1904, the same year that Bridge composed the Three Pieces for String Quartet and Novelletten for string quartet, and perhaps it is not too fanciful to hear the beautiful fusion of of four stringed instruments in the part-song’s seamless vocal blending so wonderful exploited by the BBC Singers here. If Oramo did not emphasise the way the hemiola rhythms point the text in the arching, homophonic phrases, then he did bring to the fore both Bridge’s harmonic intensifications, ‘odours, when sweet violets sicken’, and the fluid interweaving of the inner parts in the second strophe, the tenors rising high with ease and creating forward motion. The diminishing repetitions by sopranos and tenors of the final line, ‘Love itself shall slumber on’, were grounded with perfect fixity by the long pedal bass - the deep breathing of peaceful sleep.

Simple, quiet, consoling, but perhaps a part-song more suited to bringing a concert to a close. The same might be said of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Rest’ (1902), a setting of Christina Rossetti’s sonnet, ‘O Earth, like heavily upon her eyes’. Oramo skilfully captured the stillness of the first part of the sonnet, while maintaining forward momentum. The slightest of pauses before the subito pianissimo on ‘Paradise’, after an impassioned rise, was magical: ‘With stillness that is almost Paradise.’ The volta pushed forward, the sentiments now more confident, the poet desirous of union with God.

Holst’s Latin-text Nunc Dimittis for eight-part choir and soprano and tenor soloists was composed in 1915 for Richard Terry and the choir of Westminster Cathedral, but largely forgotten until it was published in 1979 in an edition prepared by Imogen Holst. The work shares with the Bridge and Vaughan Williams a debt to Tudor polyphony, sensed in the use of modality and antiphonal writing, but Holst’s harmonic language is more individualised, his engagement with the text more dynamic and sometimes surprising, as in the lightly tripping ‘Gloria in Patri’. Oramo built up the layers of the opening phrase persuasively and conveyed the expansiveness of the writing, with the sopranos bright and pure, and the lower regions warm and wholesome in tone.

Oramo explained to the audience that he had grown up with the choral tradition, not so much as a singer himself but as an admirer of the work of two uncles who were renowned choral conductors. He first encountered Laura Mvula during his Birmingham years when she was a member of the City of Birmingham Youth Choir which occasionally shared the stage with the CBSO. Oramo spoke with conviction about Love Like a Lion, admiring the way Mvula has engaged with elements from the English choral tradition and with the three poetic texts by Ben Okri which present different stages and facets of love.

The simplicity of ‘Like a child’ conveyed innocence, joy and freedom, and Mvula’s sympathetic text-setting was deeply engaging. ‘I will not die (for him)’, was more troubled, exploiting dissonances and false relations in dense, low chordal textures above which the solo soprano climbed to the stratosphere with starry purity while the baritone responded with resonant urgency. Homophonic pronouncements, ‘I know the music of the sea,/ It is a sweet death lullaby to me.’, brought the various elements back together in slightly restless concord. ‘Love like a lion’ draws on gospel traditions and though the vocal sound and phrasing were unfailingly beautiful, the BBC Singers’ rather strait-laced and polite delivery was a little discomforting; one felt that this music demanded and deserved more visceral passion.

Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell concluded the programme. Parry began the fourth song, a setting of John Gibson Lockhart’s ‘There is an old belief’, in 1907 but did not complete the set of six settings of metaphysical texts until 1915, two years before his death. It was wonderful to hear the six part-songs as a whole group, for they create compelling momentum as the voices expand from the initial four-part writing in the first two songs, successively adding a voice and driving towards the double choir eight-part setting of verses from Psalm 39.

Parry’s snidest critics may have quipped that he could make even a telephone directory sound devotional, but one would have to be hard of heart not to respond to Parry’s sensitivity to poetic text in these six ‘motets’, in which he seems to communicate Matthew Arnold’s declaration that poetry, not religion, could serve as a vehicle for devotional thought just as much as his own belief that music, not dogma, could inspire spiritual devotion in an age when religion seemed to have no place.

Oramo’s discerning, sensitive crafting of the musico-poetic forms embraced both the large-scale structures and the slightest of details. In ‘My soul, there is a country’ (Henry Vaughan) the angry vigour of the inner lines of the final verse - ‘Leave, then, thy foolish ranges’ - was marvellously supplanted by the assurance of homophonic conviction at the close: ‘For none can thee secure/But One, who never changes,/ Thy God, thy Life, thy Cure.’ In the following setting of John Davies’ ‘I know my soul hath power to know all things’, the merest pinching of Oramo’s fingers and flick of the wrist brought out the clipped sharpness of the poet’s admission, ‘I know my sense is mocked in everything.’ ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ (Thomas Campion) had a madrigalian sweetness while the Lockhart setting was probing and earnest, particularly in the final stanza where Oramo made the chromatic searching in the final phrase, ‘Earnest be the sleep,/ If not to waken up.’, intensely telling. After the drama and dynamism of ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’ (John Donne), the delivery of Parry’s setting of ‘Lord, let me know mine end’ was simply marvellous; Oramo and the BBC Singers truly relished the flexible and varied choral textures and impassioned counterpoint.

Earlier in the Proms seasons I heard Parry’s Fifth Symphony performed by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales under Martyn Brabbins and my rather flippant, and immediately revised, response was ‘Parry trying to be Brahms’. Here, though, the reference to the German master might be more valid and certainly no diminishment of Parry’s marvellous achievement in these songs; for, surely Parry was influenced by Brahms’ Four Serious Songs which he deeply admired, and he selected the same verse from Psalm 29 that Brahms set in the third part of his German Requiem.

Whatever musical shadows hang over the Songs of Farewell, Oramo and the BBC Singers offered us far-sighted illuminations of departure and a consoling Sense of an Ending.

Claire Seymour

Chamber Music Prom 6: The Sense of an Ending

Frank Bridge - ‘Music, when soft voices die’, Ralph Vaughan Williams - ‘Rest’, Gustav Holst - Nunc dimittis, Laura Mvula -Love Like A Lion (BBC co/mmission: world premiere), Hubert Parry - Songs of Farewell; Sakari Oramo (conductor), BBC Singers.

Cadogan Hall, London; Monday 20th August 2018.

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