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Wagner,Good Friday Music’ from Parsifal; Szymanowski, Stabat Mater; Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem. Soloists, The Bach Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra / David Hill. Westminster Cathedral, 31.05.06. (ED)



Carolyn Sampson, soprano
Anna Burford, mezzo-soprano
Grant Doyle, baritone



Westminster Cathedral provided a visually dramatic backdrop for this concert, of that there is little doubt, but along with it comes the building’s notorious acoustic. Some judicious decisions with regard to repertoire, tempi and dynamics are needed to get the building working with rather than against the music, as all these performances showed.

The ‘Good Friday Music’ from Parsifal began the programme, and had as its over-riding characteristic, far broader tempi than are usual in performance but necessary as a means to avoiding unduly muddied textures. These still occurred occasionally, and on the whole the orchestral tone lacked much bite and substance, particularly in the mid-strings. Such problems can regularly affect orchestras performing outside their normal venues, and as a result only the extremes of range could be clearly distinguished here, with percussion putting some much needed rhythmic bite into the performance. Woodwind lines fared better both in terms of clarity and characterful expression whilst the brass sounded as if from another realm; one suspects because of being recessed away from the openness of the nave.

A highly idiomatic reading of the Stabat Mater highlighted the growing interest in Szymanowski’s music. Cast in six movements, the work was an apposite choice for the venue  because the orientally influenced interior of the Cathedral found a similar spirit in Szymanowski’s writing. From the start a purity of upper instrumental lines was notable, which was effortlessly built upon by the contributions of Carolyn Sampson and The Bach Choir. Anna Burford did well to negotiate the alto line, which lay uneasily for her at times, also blending most sensitively with Sampson in duet. The choir occasionally swamped Grant Doyle’s line even though he projected valiantly, given the troublesome acoustic. During the fourth movement, the acoustic took its toll once again on the intricacies of Szymanowski’s choral writing and this was much to be regretted. In the finale, amongst the composer’s most inspired passages, little could take away anything from the sheer beauty of the chorally accompanied solo lines. Sampson’s sensuously soaring phrasing urged the choir and orchestra on, to a fervently realised climax.

Brahms’ German Requiem on the other hand, found itself at the mercy of interpretative decisions that did it few favours. David Hill’s choice of tempi showed little willingness on the whole, to move beyond the predictably ponderous, neither did he succeed in galvanising his forces except in moments of climax when they met the challenge with some urgency. Carefully shaded singing - no matter how beautiful in itself-unfortunately manifested itself far too often as one languorous episode after another within the succeeding movements; the very thing to which detractors of Brahms’ music delight in drawing attention even though such accusations are unjustified. But Carolyn Sampson and Grant Doyle both provided contributions of worth, carefully phrased and articulated by Sampson especially. It was a shame that so much else was lost to the audience for so much to the work’s duration. The Szymanowski certainly merits another performance by these forces before long, preferably in a more favourable venue.



Evan Dickerson


 

 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)