Photo, Mark Allan

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

If I were to choose just one example of the great choral repertoire composed prior to the twentieth-century (which would include the Saint Matthew Passion, Missa solemnis, Messiah, Mozart’s C-minor Mass, K427, and Verdi’s Requiem), it would be Brahms’s German Requiem, music of compassion and consolation, of Baroque inspiration, stirring and intimate, wondrously eloquent, and powerfully uplifting; deeply personal yet gloriously universal. Ilan Volkov led a considered performance, starting in the depths (no violins in the first movement) but the choral singing wasn’t always as blended or as intonationally exact as it might have been – dedicated though – and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was equally devoted. Volkov built the choral crescendos diligently, although the second movement’s horns (Klemperer’s celebrated Philharmonia recording leaves its mark as to how to sound these instruments) and timpani went for very little, and Volkov’s sudden increase of tempo two-thirds through came across as impatient, its successor pained, fiery and thrilling, and then a perfectly paced and buoyant pivotal movement. Of the soloists, the soprano was radiant in her sole appearance, and the baritone a little wayward either side of her, although he was imposingly oratorical in the penultimate setting to herald Handelian choral splendour – astonishing music – delivered fervently at a well-judged measured tempo, and keenly accented and detailed in the orchestra. The final movement wasn’t as transporting as it can be – a hasty arrival to the other side, although serenity was beginning to creep in, to complete this somewhat uneven sixty-five-minute account. Good to report that silence was well-observed at the end before applause.

As for Jennifer Walshe’s London premiere (not a BBC commission, by the way), opening somewhat like the Finale of Beethoven 9, a tour de force for the composer’s own uninhibited vocals (singing, speaking, declaiming) – wacky text, including social- and eco-commentary – it was certainly an intriguing listen for thirty minutes as to what would happen next, which was stylistically eclectic (to say the least), including a song that would fit a musical, if not one of the classics (the reputations of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, and similar others not under any threat), some pastiche, with the orchestra as anarchists or doodlers, much more the latter if underused, Walshe’s beloved percussion not too much in evidence, and with a visual dimension obviously lost to those of us listening on the wireless, although I would love to have seen the toy giraffe. Impossible to categorise, The Site of an Investigation, seems primarily to be a vehicle for Walshe’s opinions and protests, orchestra optional.

Jennifer Walshe, voice
Elena Tsallagova, soprano
Shenyang, bass-baritone
National Youth Choir of Great Britain
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra