MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.


Other Links

Editorial Board

  • Editor - Bill Kenny
  • Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb



The Royal Choral Society’s Remembrance Day Concert - Pergolesi and Mozart: Julia Doyle (soprano), Alexandra Gibson (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Michael Pearce (bass), Royal Choral Society, London Handel Orchestra, Richard Cooke (conductor). Southwark Cathedral, London 11.11.2009 (JPr)

The idea that music can help to heal old wounds and bring about reconciliation between peoples who have been, or remain, in conflict, Armistice Day – marking the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front in 1918 – was the reason for this concert given by the Royal Choral Society at Southwark Cathedral.

The choice of music was very suitable for this occasion with two religious works and a positive and uplifting symphony. The first piece, ‘Pergolesi’s’ Magnificat shares with the ‘Mozart’ Requiem that concluded the musical programme, something of a dubious parentage. Many doubt its attribution and more likely it was composed by his teacher, Francesco Durante. Regardless of authorship though, the Magnificat is imbued with an expressive simplicity that still makes great demands on soloists, chorus and orchestra. Richard Cooke is the Royal Choral Society’s music director and his baton was busy marshalling theforces banked up in front of him in the transept at the end of nave. The slight difference in strength between the mens’ and women’s voices in the exceptionally well-schooled Royal Choral Society was evident in this work, as well as, the Requiem. The faster runs in the third part at ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’ challenged the men's section though the women seemed to have fewer problems with the agility and difficult turns of ‘Sicut locutus’ in Part five. The solo passages were capably sung and the entire ensemble was heard to good effect as the Magnificat came towards its close with ‘Gloria Patri’ and as the different elements fused together in the fugue-like ‘Amen’.

In the first piece the sheer volume of sound from the chorus tended to overwhelm the contribution of the London Handel Orchestra who were more exposed in the following Mozart Symphony No.39. Perhaps I was sitting too close to the front but I found the orchestral sound rather thin and dull; which I put down to the rather dry acoustics of the Cathedral rather than the period instruments that some of the players were using. On the other hand, the timpani that features prominently at the opening of the symphony reverberated so much as to unbalance the overall sound and made me think only of Don Giovanni’s Commendatore. At the beginning I was uncertain how familiar the London Handel Orchestra were with this symphony since there was only a hint of the work’s inherent sublimity. As already mentioned, the first movement leant too heavily on the timpani as well as the lower strings at the expense of the clarinet. Later, the Trio was played beautifully, although the
Menuetto felt rather heavy-footed. Far better was the Finale which was played quite quickly and there the complex counterpoint now seemed second nature to the orchestra and strings and woodwinds who gave it plenty of nuance … but, oh dear, there was the timpani intruding again!

When M
ozart breathed his last in Vienna, it is reported that there were no profoundly mysterious final words and he just mouthed the sound of the timpani from his incomplete Requiem. Usually as here, it is the version by Franz Xavier Süssmayr that is performed. At the request of Mozart's wife Constanza, he composed entire movements of the Requiem (Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei) and completed substantial portions of others (Recordare and Lux aeterna). In this performance however, never has Süssmayr’s lack of invention in the music’s character and effects seemed more at odds with the expressive power and imagination of the music that we know originated from Mozart’s pen.

Thus Mozart’s Requiem is dramatic, uplifting and tragic. The lyrics are stern and scary with lots about the damned being condemned to ‘fierce flames,’ ‘the pains of hell,’ ‘the deep pit’, ‘the mouth of the lion’, and - just to make absolutely sure you have had the fear of God put into you - ‘darkness’. This is a work then, that demands the booming majesty of a huge choir and there cannot be many better than the Royal Choral Society. Again the men’s voices – especially the basses though singing with gusto throughout - could not intone darkly enough for some of their passages such as in the Confutatis. Even so, this did not detract from the overall grandeur and discipline of the chorus’s performance.

The mezzo-soprano, Alexandra Gibson, sang better in the Requiem than in her small contribution to the Magnificat. The soprano Julia Doyle sang some stratospheric lying phrases with ease, Nicholas Mulroy’s tenor voice had a well-schooled eloquence particularly with ‘Mors stupebit et natura’, and best of all was the experienced bass voice of Michael Pearce who sang throughout with a sense of imposing stature and intimate communication. Regardless of their individual contributions, the four soloists created quite a spiritual frisson with their ensemble singing, such as in ‘Cum vix justus sit securus?’

In Richard Cooke’s straightforward reading, Mozart's drumbeats presaged an ominous and imposing vision of death but even within the work’s overall fervent seriousness, he allowed some of the more elegant real Mozart to emerge; particularly in the Tuba mirum.

Jim Pritchard

Back to Top                                                    Cumulative Index Page