Logically, if the BBC were to compile a programme of music and words to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, the BBC Singers would be the perfect choir to summon up the sound-world of the old Queen’s Hall concerts in the early years of the last century. And so, for The Somme Remembered, the BBC Singers featured in a concert and live broadcast of works from the period (and of four contrasting 21st-century works looking back to World War I); they were joined by the pianist Richard Pearce, the Carducci Quartet and the actor Samuel West.
Ivor Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs range from the rocking and lyric Sleep to the jollier setting of Orpheus with his lute, and they received a suitably ‘faded’ performance, much in the manner of a conservatoire-trained village choral society bidding farewell to ‘their brave boys’. Ravel’s 1915 Trois chansons marked a French response to the World War I; the first, Nicolette, was taken rather slower than usual, although the final breathless tongue-twisting Ronde received a spirited performance. Alas, the exquisite charm of Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis was slightly tarnished by the breathy and uncertain solos.
Perhaps the best performances of the 20th-century choral works came for Holst’s Ode to Death – a setting of lines from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, the poet beloved of Holst and his friend and contemporary Vaughan Williams – and Hindemith’s Der Tod a setting for male chorus of a short poem by Hölderlin. The choir made excellent work of the contrasts in the Holst – from the massive statement of “praised be the fathomless universe” to the beautifully hushed chord clusters on “… the body gratefully nestling close to thee”, and the men of the chorus gave a balanced rendering of Hindemith’s retrospective comment on the first war.
Two contrasting solos were featured – a soprano performing, with the string quartet, Hindemith’s Traumweld, from Melancholie and a tenor performing, with piano accompaniment, Butterworth’s Is my team ploughing? from A Shropshire Lad. The former performance was magical, presenting an edgy Mahleresque work: a grey autumn day illuminated by occasional glimpses of warm gold. The Butterworth solo, alas, recalled only the autumnal years of the late Peter Pears.
Of the contemporary works, Judith Bingham’s An Ancient Music – a seven-section work for string trio, choir and speaker – was the most effective, with the stuttering homophonic passages, the descending minor-key arpeggio riffs, and the chorus-writing largely for men suggesting a dugout on the front line; the drops of rain (or were they blood?) conjured by the fractured text sung by the female chorus from the gallery in the last movement made for a particularly atmospheric close. Gabriel Jackson’s setting of Am Abend and Cecilia McDowell’s Standing as I do before God were also atmospheric, although they were rendered very samey by the unvarying tone of the BBC Singers. Daniel Saleeb’s For the Fallen – a clever interweaving of his own work and Tomas Luis Victoria’s Versa est in Luctum, alas suffered from being the first work in the concert, and was marred by uncertain entries.
Ultimately, the laurels for the evening went to the Cartucci quartet (who performed a movement from Butterworth’s suite perfectly), to Richard Pearce (whose movement from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin was also well played), and Samuel West, whose delivery was, as always, perfect.