Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Bach Choir/Hill @ Royal Festival Hall, London

21 May 2009

I sometimes think that listening to Delius’s A Mass of Life constitutes the most profound joy one can ever have in a concert hall.

Bach Choir

(Photo: Dave Freak)

It is deep because, taking its text from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra of 1885, it is revealing of both Nietzsche and Delius’s interpretation of man.

In the poem, Nietzsche depicts man as dominant, truthful and the master of his own destiny. Disdaining Christianity for encouraging people to focus on heaven, Nietzsche’s work, which follows the character, Zarathustra, on his journey, celebrates this life. It was an idea that Delius just loved, hence his setting the poem to music and choice of title.

But hearing David Hill conduct the 200-strong Bach Choir and 90-strong Philharmonia Orchestra, 100 years after the piece premiered under Sir Thomas Beecham in 1909, it was the joy of being overwhelmed, rather than the joy of being the dominant species, that I felt most.

The Bach Choir was so relentlessly overbearing in the openings to both parts of the work that I could easily overlook the lack of annunciation (the piece was performed in German in any case), and the ragged moments that clearly resulted from over-exuberance. Elsewhere, in the more subdued passages, the choir proved what an accomplished outfit it really is, particularly when the men sang ‘Nacht ist es’ and the women supported Zarathustra’s ‘Lasst vom Tanze nicht ab’.

The four soloists, on the other hand, frequently failed to blend with each other, although individually most delivered more strong than weak moments. Alan Opie, the baritone who assumes the role of Zarathustra, got off to a shaky start as he stared down at his music stand, wooden and expressionless, for his first solo. I soon forgave him, however, after hearing him plunge to the darkest recesses of his voice when trying to hide his ‘heart’s midnight thoughts’. Elsewhere he demonstrated a pleasing tone that was as light as it was firm.

Soprano, Susan Bullock, and mezzo soprano, Susan Bickley, contrasted poorly when joining the female chorus to sing ‘La, la, la!’, but individually they were strong. Bullock, in particular, capitalised on her thick, rich voice to deliver a stirring performance, even if there were a few raucous notes. In contrast, however, Nigel Robson failed to shine in his tenor role, although given that it is so thin that is hardly surprising.

Overall, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s performance felt more accomplished and consistent than that of the soloists, and it excelled particularly in the opening to Part Two when stirring horn calls came from off-stage. It was also a revelation to hear such exquisite cor anglais playing from Jill Crowther.

What did fail to register sufficiently was Nietzsche’s basic notion of man’s supremacy. Whether this was a consequence of the performance or of our own mind-set (it is hard to feel in control of one’s destiny amidst a credit crunch) is difficult to say, but perhaps it didn’t matter much. After all, hearing the music itself, and especially being hit by such a wall of sound at the end, was enough to leave me feeling happy to be alive.

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