Sunday night’s Prom was definitely in the chocolate-box league, featuring, as it did, the Choir of King’s College Cambridge singing Fauré’s ever-popular Requiem (along with performances of two more classical-countdown tunes by the same composer, the Opus 50 Pavane and the choral evergreen Cantique de Jean Racine). To underline the these-you-have-loved theme of the evening the now-regular LCD cyclorama at the back of the stage presented the audience with a sickly montage of pink rosebuds for the opening number of the concert, Mozart’s Exsultate jubilate, sung with a bravura flourish by the soprano Lucy Crowe. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were also on top form, and bang in their period. The piece is often performed by sopranos with a ‘Despina’ vocal quality, but Crowe’s voice is creamier and more full-bodied, and it provided a pleasant alternative, with no let-up on the agility for the cadenzas, or on the quality and precision of the top notes.
Haydn’s Paukenmesse occupied the rest of the first half, and again, the orchestral timbres from the period band worked well (Adrian Bending’s timpani playing, particularly his ostinati in the Agnus Dei, was delightful, as was the exquisitely nuanced cello introduction to the Qui Tollis); the four soloists were evenly matched, providing elegant classical exactitude. The problem, though, is that Stephen Cleobury and King’s College Choir, although excellent at producing evensong every day, never seem to be able to move too far away from that particular sound. Granted, the Esterházy choir would have had boys on the top line, but there the similarity ends, and the opportunity to explore a more exciting historically-informed performance of the work (especially when working with a period band such as OAE) was sadly lost in the slightly sterile Anglican-Italianate-Latin delivery that could easily have been from an Argo recording from the 1960s under Willcocks.
The two Fauré lollipops were charmingly performed, although the Pavane felt a little laboured, and seemed, somehow, the wrong opener for the second half.
The Requiem itself is, again, a standard King’s crowd-pleaser, and was given the usual Cambridge treatment. Alas however, what works in a studio, or in the generous acoustic of a gothic chapel, doesn’t necessarily do so in The Albert Hall. The few tenors (perhaps five at most) sounded terribly thin and under-powered in their solo lines in the Introit and Agnus Dei; indeed, the whole choir felt somewhat swamped by the cut-down orchestra and the Albert Hall organ (which, even on quiet stops, still managed to dominate); the Libera me – during which a modicum of terror should pervade Fauré’s otherwise tender farewell – failed to rise above a politely smothered yelp. There were also, it has to be said, a few problems with co-ordination in the early sections of the work.
Once again, the orchestra and soloist were the stars of the show. Fauré’s deliberate use of low strings (the violins don’t appear until the Sanctus) was masterfully showpieced by the honeyed contralto tones delivered by the violas and cellos. Roderick Williams’ voice was perfectly suited to the work, providing a sinister edge for the Libera me, yet a glorious out-of-nowhere delicacy for the Hostias.
Although King’s is a historically popular choir, sadly, the feeling throughout the evening was one of missed opportunities – that the performances could all have been improved by the use of a group of singers with more power and nuance.