Classical Penderecki / Walton Royal Festival Hall, London

'The work reached its closing stages with the majesty of a ship entering port'
Click to follow
For the second time in the past few days we heard a concert programme introduced from the platform at the Festival Hall, a natural extension of the idea of the pre-concert talk which may become an increasingly familiar feature in programmes that include unfamiliar or controversial fare.

On Sunday, the Bach Choir had taken a bold initiative in giving the London premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki's Te Deum, not a particularly recent piece - it dates from 1980 - nor indeed as much of a challenge to listeners as the composer's radical earlier work, but music to test an amateur choir, nevertheless. It was clearly thought that a few explanations were in order, but in response to questions from Paul Patterson the composer only told us a few things we could already read in the programme. There was an attempt to draw him on his increasing conservatism, but this was affably parried. All in all, not an entirely successful enterprise - a tougher approach was needed if it was to add to our understanding and enjoyment.

As to the work itself, which under the composer's direction seemed to go very well, there was again the sense of disappointment that, in attempting a rapprochement with tradition, the composer has thrown away so many of the more exhilarating and piquant elements of his former vocabulary. For a moment in the middle of the work the choir broke into rhythmically notated speech-patterns to resurrect some of the old vigour, while towards the close a little of the contemplative vision of a work like Szymanowski's Stabat Mater seemed to have been rediscovered to touching effect. Elsewhere, the music's lyric and harmonic processes seemed to lack urgency and sharpness of focus, although the Bach Choir and soloists Alison Pearce, Jane Irwin, Neil Jenkins and Stephen Roberts sang with real commitment, and the Philharmonia Orchestra provided strong support.

Taking over the baton after the interval, Sir David Willcocks directed the choir as only he can in a fiery and rhythmically hard-edged performance of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. The complex layers of sound that contribute to the oratorio's two mighty climaxes, with antiphonal brass ensembles and jubilant choral rhetoric, were splendidly controlled, and the work reached its closing stages with all the majesty of a great ship entering port.

It took time for the performance to engage us dramatically, and the rather clinical Festival Hall acoustic didn't help, but as the work gathered momentum so did the interpretation, and with Stephen Roberts narrating boldly and the Philharmonia bringing great clarity and rhythmic electricity to their playing, the music began to leap from the page. Earlier Sir David had drawn from the orchestra a no more than routine performance of Walton's Orb and Sceptre, and it might have been wiser to allow the oratorio to stand on its own.

Comments