Sunday, 29 March 2009


28/3/09, Barbican

2hrs 5mins. Mozart's Coronation Mass and Mendelssohn's Symphony No 2, the Hymn of Praise, performed by a choir we hadn't heard of accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the choir's conductor, one Mark Forkgen. The choir was large (forgot to count, but they filled the back of the Barbican Hall's stage with no difficulty) but, as so often, desperately short of men (so short, indeed, that one woman sang tenor). The RPO fielded around 30 players in the Coronation Mass, with only one set of violins and no clarinets (there were no clarinets in Mozart's Salzburg, G told me, and bless me, he was right); there were around 40 for the Mendelssohn. Both pieces featured a chamber organ.

Visual memory cues: chorus in black ties, band in white tie, soprano in fine dark burgundy evening dress and little black jacket.

The Mass is almost uniformly joyous and was sung with gusto, but the choral writing seemed unadventurous: almost all the choruses were sung in unison. I wondered if it showed Mozart had little faith in the capacities of the Salzburg cathedral choir, but I read instead that the Cardinal-Archbishop insisted on keeping masses short, and this was Mozart's solution (it lasts only around 30 minutes). The part-writing for the voice was limited to the soloists, mostly deployed as a quartet. There were only two quieter passages: the Agnus Dei, a beautiful soprano solo, and the Benedictus, where a reflective soprano alternates with the choir belting out Osannas. The choir seemed well-drilled right from the very first note, when they enter, all guns blazing, with a Kyrie.

Enjoyment slightly marred by a dreadful stomach ache brought on by too little exercise earlier in the day and a dyspeptic reaction to the meal beforehand at Searcy's (G paid): normally it's a good place and pretty quiet, but tonight it was full and they seemed overwhelmed. My starter never arrived; we were bolting our main course a few minutes before the concert started and more than an hour after we got there.

On the other hand, a Japanese woman sat at the next table in full fig, and there were more kimonos in the foyer beforehand, there to see the Ninagawa Kabuki production of Twelfth Night in the theatre.

The Mendelssohn is really rather fine, a three movement sinfonia, which lasts about 40 minutes, and then a 20 minute choral finale with three soloists (mezzo, a South African soprano called Erica Eloff, who had a powerful voice and a young tenor, Nathan Vale, with an agreeable voice but not perhaps quite enough heft). It starts with a distinctive and authoritative fanfare on the trombones which is then echoed by the rest of the orchestra and returns several times during the piece, including at the very end.

There were some lovely touches in the orchestral sections, including a clarinet solo which dies away to nothing; and in the finale there's a wonderful crashing chorus ("the Hymn of the German Reformation", apparently) with the band batting the notes of the fanfare back and forth between brass and horns, and which ought to be the work's climax. What can he follow it with? you wonder. In the event he pulls off a potentially very difficult transition by going straight to an unaccompanied chorale of Nun danket alle Gott, set to the familiar tune, and then a duet for soprano and tenor and finally another chorus, not quite so crashing.

Mendelssohn does write some lovely melodies and manages to write music that is mellifluous without being cloying. Why isn't this piece better known? G thought it better than Elijah. I'd love to hear it again with a better balanced choir.

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