Opera + Classical Music Reviews

400 Voices Sing Berlioz @ Royal Festival Hall, London

4 May 2005

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

The last time I heard the Berlioz Te Deum live I was part of the school choir taking part in a performance in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. I can’t bear to reveal the date – suffice to say that Sir David Willcocks was still in charge of music there at the time – but I remember the occasion well.

What I had forgotten is just how exciting the piece can be, and that was without the benefit of the massed voices of the Hertfordshire Chorus, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, the Finchley Children’s Music Group and the Mid Herts Youth Choir… there were indeed 400 voices in full flow at the Festival Hall, and what an exciting and wonderful sound they produced. Surely Berlioz was smiling from above, despite the fact that he had even more grandiose designs – he suggested that for the most intimate moments the choir numbers should be reduced to 400…

David Temple – conductor, Musical Director and inspiration of both adult choirs – must be given full credit for a truly inspirational evening. He brought them together, with two youth choirs and the Aurelian Orchestra, for a performance of both power and great sensitivity.

The power was most obvious, not surprisingly, in the last section of the Te Deum, Judex Crederis – We Believe That Thou Shalt Come To Be Our Judge – the music both triumphant and terrifying, the voices augmented by the Royal Festival Hall Organ. But the gentler sections, such as the Dignare – Vouchsafe O Lord This Day To Keep Us With Sin – were just as impressive, showing the subtlety Temple can produce from his singers.

The whole programme was a delight, starting with Holst’s Hymn to Jesus in which both the Finchley Children’s Chorus and the Aurelian Symphony Orchestra played an integral part in producing a magical effect. There can’t be many works that open with trombones. But Holst made his living for some years as a trombone player… Whatever, it’s a striking beginning to a stunningly dramatic work of religious mysticism, with passages that bring to mind the lyricism of his friend and contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams and motifs that presage Benjamin Britten.

The physical space of the Royal Festival Hall came into its own as the choir sections – and the Finchley Children’s Chorus – were ranged in a huge arc behind the orchestra, allowing a wonderful distinction between the vocal parts. This was even more apparent in Spem in Alium, Thomas Tallis’ early choral masterpiece written for eight five-part choirs.

This was the sublime experience of the evening, the sound moving between the different sections of the choirs to magical effect, the voices coming together for the first time in the fortieth bar – possibly by design, as the work was reputedly performed for the first time to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday in 1573.

The Hertfordshire Chorus suggested to me last year at the Barbican, in a spectacular performance of the Mass In Blue they commissioned from Will Todd, that they can hold their own against any choir in the land. This year at the Royal Festival Hall my view was confirmed.

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More on David Temple
Land Of Light / Mozart Requiem @ West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge
400 Voices Sing Berlioz @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Mass In Blue / Ein Deutsches Requiem @ Barbican Hall, London