The Dome, Brighton, Sunday 14th October, 2018
A joyfully indulgent afternoon to start the new series, and one which celebrated the 50th birthday of Brighton Festival Chorus.
After a brief welcome from Barry Wordsworth we were whisked into Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, its bombastic jollity setting the mood for the rest of the afternoon. Handel’s Zadok the Priest may lie a little outside the subsequent Parry and Elgar though it did give the choir an opening moment of glory. They were certainly in fine voice throughout, the tenors clear and true, the sopranos fearlessly attacking the top lines. This was very much a romantic approach to Handel, minus the organ and with a modern string sound, but very much in keeping with the Parry and Elgar which was to follow.
The real find of the concert was Parry’s rarely performed masterpiece From Death to Life. Written for Brighton in 1914 it shows a wonderful sense of colour it its orchestration and melodic lines which rival Elgar. The opening section on Death hints at the melancholy of Sibelius while the jolly march of Life sits comfortably with Eric Coates or Percy Grainger. We really need to hear this again.
The first half ended with Elgar’s setting of Psalm 48, written in 1912 and comparable to much of the choral setting in The Apostles or possibly more sedate demons from Gerontius in the second section. The bass chorus took on the solo third part with aplomb before all sections came together for the unfolding glories of the finale.
After the interval, to give the choir a break, we heard Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture in all its brashness and fizz. Barry Wordsworth managed to find real lightness and sparkle here for what can too easily become simply pompous. Maybe it was the thought of the Scene from the Bavarian Highlands which ended the afternoon. Is there anything else in Elgar which is quite as joyous as these settings of Lady Alice’s verse? Though her poems often come in for criticism, here they allow Elgar to delight in lightly flowing lines and warm, sunny harmonies which are a world away from English melancholy. The third and sixth songs are possibly better known in their orchestral arrangements but sung as part of the whole make a far more impressive impact.
In between these two exultant works we heard the brief, reflective setting of O Hearken Thou from 1911 and written for the Coronation of King George V. A surprisingly introspective work for a joyful occasion, its serious nature supports the faith which underlies it.
At the start Barry Wordsworth mentioned that he has recently recorded some lesser known Elgar works with The Brighton Festival Chorus. It will be a recording worth having.
The next BPO concert is on Sunday 11 November with works by Rossini, Beethoven and Dvorak.