Classical: Wilde words, mild music

BACH CHOIR, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, LONDON

CHOOSING THE right words, said one composer, is half the battle. If so, Robert Walker fought that half of the battle well. From the long and, as Walker admits, "patchy" letter Oscar Wilde wrote from prison to his lover Alfred Douglas, he contrived a fine, moving text, part narrative, part inspired sermon, packed with choice Wildean epigrams: "He who would lead a Christ-like life must be entirely and absolutely himself. Most people are other people; their life is mimicry, their passions a quotation."

The musical result, De Profundis, for baritone, chorus and orchestra, suggests - to a point - a composer determined to be entirely and absolutely himself. Walker turns his back on fashionable "isms". Much of De Profundis isn't so much post-modern as pre-modern.

If the choral writing (elegant and obviously good to sing) echoes anyone, it is the young Gustav Holst. In the final bars comes a quotation from Elgar's Dream of Gerontius; De Profundis was commissioned by the Bach Choir's new musical director, David Hill, to accompany Elgar's masterpiece.

At the opening, the soloist speaks Wilde's account of his ordeal at Clapham Junction, handcuffed on the platform in front of jeering crowds - the orchestra simply accompanying then brassily evoking the mocking laughter. Essentially it's an old device, but effective enough here - all credit to the baritone David Wilson-Johnson for delivering it with such conviction.

If De Profundis had all been on this level it could have delivered quite a punch. But all too often the music seems ancillary to the words, sweetly generalised rather than rising to the heights of Wilde's visionary passion and bitterness. However the performance, especially from the Bach Choir, was full of feeling and with exemplary clarity of enunciation.

The same qualities were apparent in the choral singing throughout The Dream of Gerontius. The much derided Demons' Chorus had spirit and enough acrid colouring to suggest that these really were hellish hordes ready to devour lost souls, even if they were wearing Victorian dinner suits.

This was David Hill's first concert as director of the Bach Choir, and it is obvious that he has made his mark. Good playing, too, from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, as in De Profundis - Hill isn't just a choral conductor. Both parts of Gerontius were well shaped, with powerful climaxes and the requisite sense of serene undercurrent in part two.

Adrian Thompson was persuasive in the title role - not searingly powerful, perhaps, but warmly human and especially touching in moments of quiet intensity. Wilson-Johnson, reincarnated as Elgar's Priest and Angel of the Agony, was on stirring form. Jean Rigby's Angel was disappointing; I was aware of the sound of the voice, much less of musical phrasing. Still, it was a performance to remind you what a great work this is. Irredeemably English? Its first triumph came in Dusseldorf - not at the Birmingham premiere. We may cherish Elgar as a national institution, but it wasn't always us who discovered his work.

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