Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Old Pictures, New Worlds review – BBC Symphony Orchestra presents two contrasting works

10 May 2024

Nunes Garcia’s 1826 Missa de Santa Cecilia is set against Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s well-loved Pictures at an Exhibition.

BBC SO Martyn Brabbins

The BBC Symphony Orchestra & Martyn Brabbins (Photo: Mark Allan)

African/Brazilian composer José Mauricio Nunes Garcia seems to be flavour of the month; last week saw Chineke! perform his 1799 Requiem, and this week, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were joined by soloists Erika Baikoff, Carris Jones, Joshua Stewart and Ross Ramgobin for a performance of his last major choral work, Missa de Santa Cecilia, written, in honour of the patron saint of music, for the cathedral in Rio de Janeiro.

Hearing a performance of a long-dormant work always piques curiosity, and is often rewarded by pleasant surprise. Sadly, however, this was not the case with this one. Unlike the punchier Requiem – which was clearly written with an eye on liturgical brevity – this Mass setting takes up well over an hour (the ten movement ‘Gloria’ occupying the largest slice of this). And while there is nothing inherently wrong with the writing, it is just rather prosaic. Written in the Classical style (one can feel the Viennese structures of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven at work, and even touches of Rossini or even Donizetti in some of the passages for soloists) it presents as a series of ordinary musical gestures of the period without Haydn’s easy wit, Mozart’s ingenuity or Beethoven’s daring. For sure, there is prettiness in the woodwind writing (the clarinet in the ‘Kyrie’ for example, the charming oboe motifs in ‘Laudamus te’, agile section work in ’Qui tollis’, the bassoon decorations in ‘Quoniam’) and there is intelligent use of brass and timpani for a little bombast now and again (‘Et resurrexit’, for example), but there’s not much here to leave one wanting to promote the work as an exciting addition to the choral canon. Indeed, chorally, it is hardly a challenge – for the most part, the chorus work is homophonic; there are the occasional splits between upper and lower voices, a little counterpoint here and there, and some occasionally interesting ‘conversations’ between choir and soloists, but there are none of the fugal passages one might expect.

The forces, under Martyn Brabbins’ expert direction did what they could to bring life to the work. It’s arguable that a smaller band of period instruments and a chorus accustomed to historically-informed performance (there is, presumably, someone somewhere who could provide information about early 19th century Brazilian-Portuguese accented Latin pronunciation!) might have added a little more nuance and sparkle, but no fault could be found with the exemplary accounts of chorus and orchestra, Brabbins coaxing some elegant contrasts of dynamic and texture from both to give the work as much of its character as possible.

“This was a cracking performance, flawlessly delivered, and chock full of exciting and contrasting timbres”

A lot of the soloists’ passages are as a quartet, and the blend of the four was excellent. Three movements feature a single soloist (sadly, the mezzo gets no place in the sun), and, of these, the Rossini-esque ‘Laudamus te’ for soprano stood out. It’s very much a concert aria, and Baikoff’s voice – sweet, with power at the top – was perfect for it, delivering its agile coloratura figures with a coating of honey. Tenor Joshua Stewart has a pleasantly mellifluous voice, but it is slightly uneven in tone, and one felt that the nimble passages of ’Qui tollis’ took more effort than necessary. Baritone Ross Ramgobin displayed an engaging sonority in the mid-range passages of ‘Quoniam’, but the lower register was slightly underpowered and his top notes felt a little stretched.

Although it’s a work of half a century later, and from a totally different musical tradition, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition couldn’t have been a greater contrast. Of course, Ravel’s 1922 orchestration – which brings exciting multi-hued orchestral textures (including a ship’s bell, a saxophone and a celesta) to the party – aided considerably in banishing the ennui, but here was a piece that the orchestra could really get their teeth into. And they did.

This was a cracking performance, flawlessly delivered, and chock full of exciting and contrasting timbres. The horns in ‘Gnomus’ proved their worth with some comically flatulent whoops and trills, the colourings of ‘Il Vecchio Castello’ were beautifully depicted by mellow bassoons and diaphanous strings, the airy textures of ‘Tuileries’, ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ and ‘Limoges’ wafted to and fro, each brief note carefully judged for effect. (some excellent ‘scurrying’ from horns and violins in the latter). ‘Bydlo’ was given all of the toiling solidity it needs, the rich brass for ‘Catacombs’ couldn’t have been more portentous, and, thanks to some skilled work on dynamic and timbre, the Slavic scariness of ‘Baba Yaga’ was suitably spine-chilling. One forgets that the title of the last movement has contemporary resonance, but the final triumphant uproar of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev/Kyiv’ served as an uplifting counterpoint to the recent grim celebrations in Red Square.

buy BBC Symphony Orchestra MP3s or CDs
Spotify BBC Symphony Orchestra on Spotify

More on BBC Symphony Orchestra
Old Pictures, New Worlds review – BBC Symphony Orchestra presents two contrasting works
Total Immersion: Italian Radicals review – Martyn Brabbins and the BBCSO thrill at the Barbican
Preview: BBC Proms 2024 – wider still and wider
Let There Be Light review – a new work from James MacMillan
Prom 27 review – Bellido, Rachmaninov and Walton in an emotional roller coaster