Like its exact contemporary, Jean Cocteau’s Lady Chapel in Notre Dame de France, Poulenc’s 1959 Gloria has always seemed a very secular work. Despite the sacred text, it is essentially a collection of jolly tunes and backward-looking sensuous musical impressionism definitely suited more to the concert hall than the church. Crouch End Festival Chorus, with the London Orchestra da Camera under David Temple’s direction, gave a creditable performance of it on Monday evening. The separation of the choir into basses and altos on one side and tenors and sopranos on the other made for some enjoyable stereo effects in Laudamus te, and the orchestra followed this with some atmospherically languid string playing after the gratias agimus section. The soprano Erica Eloff was the perfect choice for the work, demonstrating a controlled bell-like tone in both her Domine Deus passages. There was some excellent control from the choir too (particularly in the unaccompanied qui sedes sections), but the orchestra could have been more responsive – they rarely managed a completely quiet moment, and the final twinkling tu solus could have been more magical.
Although Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music was originally written for sixteen soloists, the composer allowed for subsequent performances to be sung by a full choir (in this performance, Temple chose to allocate the solo lines to sub-groups of each part) but the effect is markedly different, and ends up – as it did in this performance – as a series of trade-offs. The ensemble sections become even more magnificent, but it is the soaring solo lines – where the character of an individual voice should shine – that become less exciting. This was amply demonstrated on Monday, where the glorious climax ‘such harmony is in immortal souls’ was delivered by full-bodied chorus and full orchestra, and set spines tingling; the tenor build-up to this, however, (‘…still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins’), which should be a thrilling turbo-charge of Heldentenor, was, alas, flabby and underpowered. The soprano section, however, delivered the floating ‘sweet harmony’ line beautifully each time, and the hushed full-chorus close was very special indeed.
John Adams’ 1981 work Harmonium has now made the transition from a niche composition to being a part of regular choral repertoire, and it is always – as it was on Monday night – an impressive work. Much in the piece depends on rhythm – it is a classically minimalist piece, after all – and the chorus tackled this well, although the occasional lapse of precision in final-consonant placing in Because I Could Not Stop For Death meant that some of the cross-rhythms became less sharp. The long legato lines at the beginning of this movement, however, were well delivered, and the rhythmic build-ups throughout (especially the slow crescendo at the beginning of Negative Love) were deftly handled. Wild Nights was the gloriously abandoned bacchanal that Dickinson suggested and that Adams wrote.
In general, the Crouch End Festival Chorus gave the audience an excellent experience. The pieces were well chosen, and well sung. Perhaps it was the Barbican Hall (which always seems so uncompromising in terms of stage space), but the orchestra felt a little over-powered, and not as homogenous in timbre as it could have been. A further nuance might have been that, given the three very different backgrounds to the pieces, each one might have had a more discrete style, whereas there was a feeling of very much the same group of people performing the same music. But this is a very high-level quibble, and overall, it was a very pleasant evening of just the right length.