Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Mass In Blue / Ein Deutsches Requiem @ Barbican Hall, London

25 April 2004

There are masses, and there are masses. From the beauty and simplicity of early plainsong through the rich grandeur of Stanford, to the exotic exuberance of the Missa Luba. And now there’s Will Todd’s Mass In Blue, premiered in 2003 as Jazz Mass – which is exactly what it is.

Pure, exhilarating and exciting jazz, with the difference that in addition to a solo vocalist there’s a vast choir. The Hertfordshire Chorus, which commissioned the work as part of their innovative programming, is 130 strong and in the splendid acoustics of Barbican Hall they make a pretty good noise.

It’s not an obvious pairing – jazz with choral singing – but in the hands of a young composer like Todd it’s triumphant. Todd himself plays jazz piano, with bass and drums from his Trio supplemented by brass and timpani from the Aurelian Symphony Orchestra.

His vocalist is the delightful soprano Bethany Halliday, who sings regularly with ENO and other opera companies but has maintained a love of jazz and gospel music – possibly because she happens to be married to Will Todd. She has the perfect voice for this piece: bright, sure and very flexible – and she looks good too, in a sparkly blue dress and shot silk wrap.

The mass itself follows the standard format – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei – and each is a work in its own right with complex textures and colours, often building to a thrilling climax with choir and instruments at full stretch.

I will admit there were a few times when my non-conformist upbringing made me wince – for example at singers swaying, with rapt ecstatic expressions induced by the sinuous tempi, while singing the Credo (though it does at least slow down to a more contemplative pace for the Crucifixus). And then I slapped my own wrist, decided a Catholic would have no problem with that at all, and let myself flow with the music once more.

Both instrumental and choral writing are complex and yet straightforward: instantly accessible but music that will not only stand the test of time but will grow with repeated listening. The good news is that Mass In Blue is now to be recorded, and I will certainly be looking out for a copy.

After the excitement of Mass In Blue the Brahms Requiem was almost an anticlimax, though it’s always a pleasure. Bethany Halliday was back on stage for the soprano solo (I liked her better in the jazz – her voice has too much of a beat for me in this role) and Graeme Danby, another ENO stalwart, provided the baritone.

But this Requiem is really a vehicle for the chorus. David Temple, musical director of the Hertfordshire Chorus since 2000, demonstrated his versatility in handling both the classical and the contemporary by drawing a thrilling performance from this big choir, while the wonderfully gentle, pastoral textures were developed with great sensitivity.

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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