A World Requiem: BBC Symphony Chorus / Botstein, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Not many pre-concert lectures draw as large a crowd as the one for John Foulds's A World Requiem, but few have such an interesting story. After stumbling on this gigantic work by accident, Calum MacDonald has spent 30 years championing it: this would be its first performance since 1926. It draws on the words of John Bunyan, the prophet Isaiah, the Psalms, and the medieval poet Kabir, and is pervaded by the ideas of Theosophy, the mystical quasi-religion to which Foulds and his circle adhered.

Its premiere at the Albert Hall was a popular but not critical success; it had three more performances – one relegated to a smaller venue – before the British Legion withdrew its patronage, and the conductor Adrian Boult, music director of the BBC, declined to rescue it. So why was it "mysteriously axed", as the programme melodramatically claimed? Was it not such a hit the second time round?

With Leon Botstein conducting the BBC Symphony Chorus, three other choirs and a substantial orchestra, we could judge for ourselves; the 90-minute, 20-movement work would be performed without an interval, and would be broadcast live on Radio 3.

Three minutes in, my defences were down as Gerald Finley intoned an ecstatic response over a muted chorus: no other baritone can touch him for declamatory expressiveness. The next few movements followed each other seamlessly, with each bringing delights: eerily chromatic slides, a small chorus accompanied by a brass quartet, a boys' choir suddenly sounding from the heavens with microtonal harmonies.

When Finley addressed all the nations of the world, he was answered by fanfares from the gallery at all points of the compass. The first half closed, as it had opened, with a beautifully shaped "Requiem".

But as the second half of this work unfolded, one realised its limitations. It was all about voices and effects, and its ecstatic tone became increasingly monotonous: apart from an iffy French soprano, this was as good a performance as it could conceivably get, yet by the end one was mildly bored. "Axed" – or just expired?

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