Mirror of Perfection Royal Festival Hall, London
Friday 14 February 1997
With a musical, King (as in Martin Luther), recently staged as part of the Clinton inauguration, such things may be of little concern to Blackford. Indeed, the London Choral Society's performance of his Mirror of Perfection at the RFH on Tuesday could have seemed relatively small fry in comparison. None the less, it was billed as his first work for the concert hall in over a decade, and so, one supposes, was an important occasion. With Ronald Corp conducting, Blackford could surely not have wished for a safer pair of hands to assist at the rebirth, the piece having been premiered last year at the Royal College of Music. The chorus sang with a panache that makes them one of London's finest. And in soloists Marilyn Hill Smith (soprano) and Ian Caddy (baritone), he had steady exponents who handled the work with confident familiarity.
And there were familiar aspects to the Mirror of Perfection. Though a delicate French bloom was detectable in the harmony of all seven movements, the echoes were of Britten, Walton and other masters of the native choral sound. In choosing texts from St Francis, who was kind to animals, Blackford honoured the English tradition in other ways, for the saint has always been popular on these island shores. Animals got a mention in movement five, a "Canticle of the Birds", with a humorous accompaniment of plucked strings. The opening movement was a quiet setting, mainly for chorus alone, of the famous "Il Cantico delle Creature", though developing from this text a theme neither of ecological awareness nor of the saint's devotion to "Lady Poverty".
Instead, the subject was love. Not for Blackford the asperity of the saint as found in Hindemith's ballet Nobilissima Visione, or his piety celebrated in Messiaen's St Francis opera. Rather, clothing his amatory hymn in a radiance of strings, harp and three horns sometimes recalling the music of Nicholas Maw, Blackford went on to set "hitherto unknown poems" showing the saint as love-obsessed. In movement six, a deftly woven passacaglia, "amore" appeared no fewer than 48 times. After such excess, a "Canticle of Peace" formed a suitably restful ending to this carefully written and enjoyable cantata.
A sombre reading of Faure's Requiem balanced this mood of exultation after the interval. Crisp, sharp and focused, the singers responded to Corp's lead with impassioned singing in the "Sanctus" and the throbbing heartbeat of the "Libera me". In the context of the Royal Festival Hall, this was unlikely to be a visionary performance. It was, however, a deeply satisfying one.
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