Review: BBC National Chorus Of Wales @ Hoddinott Hall
With all the trips to see BBC NOW so many times, it’s extra special when their chorus is playing as well. You never see them as much as the orchestra and I feel more should be done about this. This concert was certainly their moment to shine. And shine they certainly did.
Two composers were our focus for the evening, Frenchman Francis Poulenc and Englishman Benjamin Britten. The former we don’t hear enough off and the latter we are hearing so much of. Poulenc died fifty years ago and Britten, as I have said and will keep on saying, was born one hundred ago. Britten had a firm relationship (they were both gay, but Poulenc appeared more closeted) and he wanted to improve the recognition of his French friend's repertoire.
Both have written some robust and profound choral music. Britten’s first BBC broadcast was off a choral work and another choral work lay on his desk at his death in 1976. He even acquired a recently closed down malt factory in Suffolk and turned it into the concert hall of his dreams. For the opening of the new hall in 1967, he wrote a five-minute overture called The Building Of The House. I am to go to the Aldeburgh Festival next month where this concert hall is and all I could think of was the concert hall in all its reformed majesty. The hustle and bustle in the music evokes what shall become one of the biggest classical music festivals in England.
Poulenc’s first work on the programme was his Litanies a la Vierge Noire (Liturgy Of The Black Virgin). After a friend died in a car crash, Poulenc would retreat to the holy shrine of Rocamadour. There after seeing the celebrated sculpture of the Black Virgin, he was inspired to write this piece and it can be sung by either a female choir or children’s choir, with orchestra or organ. It’s a tender work and he evokes many things when writing in a sacred vein. Not many other composers at this time would write as much religious music as Poulenc (Oliver Messiaen a great exception).
Like Debussy, Poulenc would orchestrate some piano works of the latter’s teacher Erik Satie. So his Deux Reludes Posthumes Et Une Gnossienne becomes a medieval sounding work for orchestra. Some of the piano pieces of Satie are very famous but I didn’t recognise anything in this work.
Poulenc’s ballet Secheresses is his little Rite Of Spring with even moments like Carmina Burana. The ideas seems to come from the images of flaming giraffes, all very much under the umbrella of the surrealist canon. It certainly had fire in its belly and much clout. Sadly he nearly destroyed it since the commissioners had made it too much of his work and of Poulenc. We are lucky it has been saved.
Just after the interval the Overture by Poulenc (orchestrated by Jean Francaix) graced us with an appearance. The programme stated the work was nine-minutes long. It was not even half that. As a few members of the choir made their way down to the stage, we prepared for Britten’s AMDG. The strange title comes from the texts writer Manley Hopkins, who was a Jesuit and their motto is ‘‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’’ or ‘‘To the greater glory of god’’. Like with the Litanies, this was a highlight of the evening. To just have the selected handful of singers come towards the audience and sing in such fine ways was a rare treat. Something I would love to hear again by Britten.
One last Britten work would finish the concert was Ballad Of The Solider. Like with his other more famous works the War Requiem and Sinfonia de Requiem, the issue of war was never a problem for him. He was a pacifist and refused to fight in the war. With his lifelong partner Peter Pears, a tenor by trade, both stood by this and remained a happy couple for decades. He wrote Pears many works for tenor but not here though.
Listening to the Ballad felt like a militaristic ritual in which the snarling beast of war with its repugnant tentacles tangle and suffocate you. It’s a brave move in music and the hushed singing of Robin Tritschler at the end really put into perspective the lunacy of war. I can see why they both refused to fight.
More of the chorus please.
Related Article: Review: BBC NOW - Britten's Violin Concerto @ WMC