Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Crouch End Festival Chorus @ Barbican, London

20 January 2007

Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time is a difficult work to pull off, but it can be astoundingly powerful in the greatest of performances.

Its depiction of individual and collective struggle, most movingly evoked through the use of negro spirituals, can prove overwhelming.

The rendition at the Barbican on Saturday evening was, if anything, too polite, with little sense of personal turmoil ever penetrating the surface of David Temple‘s reading.

It was, however, no fault of either orchestra or choir, or even of solo baritone Grant Doyle, whose strong and malleable voice moulded phrases of great dramatic potency throughout. Rather, it was the other three soloists who disappointed. Tenor James Oxley may have a pure tone, a wide range of expression and a musical line of phrasing, but the poor chap just did not have the projection, and I could barely hear a word he sang.

Soprano Naomi Harvey had no problems in that respect, and she did find some fantastic floated head notes in the spiritual Steal Away – rather the problems that she encountered were problems that so many sopranos encounter: those being that hollow, cavernous vibrato and a shrillness up above. Hard work should eliminate these, and also a few lessons on portamento could come in handy. And finally, Susan Bickley had a steely, rather acidic mezzo and a terrible tendency to sing into her score.

It was left to the Crouch End Festival Chorus to provide thrills, and while this group is not technically flawless or even particularly thrilling to listen to, they are intensely musical. Syllables rippled from section to section in the work’s wintry opening chorus; the spirituals (for which the choir was joined by members of the Finchley Children’s Music Group) pulsated with syncopated rhythms of immense clarity and purpose. Go Down Moses was revealed as the work’s emotional and spiritual heart, with the most vital choral singing and Grant Doyle’s eloquent contributions. Only a couple of splodged consonants could do with work the sibilance of “when shall the usurers city cease” was messy.

The problem with Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony is that the parts do not generally meld into a whole. The hodgepodge of texts and musical styles, orchestrated for everything including the kitchen sink (well, the cow horn), can seem merely a tuneful if not tune-filled divertissement. It is also, of course, packed with absolutely sublime music, and while David Temple found no link between movements or any escape from the banality that only occasionally creeps into the composition, he relished every dainty melody; every joyous piece of musical evocation; every unorthodox orchestration.

The Forest Philharmonic Orchestra provided the musical performance of the evening, which is quite an achievement given that they are a community orchestra. The woodwind section especially is astonishingly secure, while the violins, for all their problems with pitching, have heart. Whether providing a delicately hued, sensitively brushed accompaniment in Welcome Maids of Honour, evoking the dappling of rain in Waters Above or contributing to a terrifically secure final tutti, this orchestra performed with great dignity and understanding, while never overpowering the voice.

And indeed, somewhere along the line the performance warmed up and ended in quite a joyous mood. If the tenor sounded morose and unaware of the text’s meaning in Waters Above, he delivered a glorious duet with Naomi Harvey in Fair and Fair. By the end, the solo voices combined in gleeful patter of surprising character, and a younger, expanded section of the children’s choir contributed fantastically to the ensemble, however much I was reminded of the singing in a school assembly. Sadly, it was too little, too late.

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