Monday’s Cadogan Hall Prom saw the first pairing for an a cappella concert of the BBC Singers with the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s current Chief Conductor, Sakari Oramo. ‘Endings’ was the theme, and, gathering many resonances together, the concert closed with Hubert Parry’s own reflections on mortality (written shortly before his death 100 years ago), the cycle Songs of Farewell.
The combination of Oramo and the BBC Singers is a winner: the choir seems to have overcome many of the problems of blend that it has been prone to in recent years, and (apart from the occasional tenor over-blow) the singers produced a delightfully warm amalgam of sound; a touch of vibrato still remained, but that merely complemented the repertoire (which was mostly from the English early-20th-century traditions). Oramo has also clearly taken the pastoralist part-song style to heart, as his sensitive second-by-second control of dynamic, speed and pause to point up the text was masterly.
Frank Bridge’s setting of Music, when soft voices die is an exercise in quiet chromatic homophony, and the dynamic needle rarely passed mezzo-piano, providing the most delicate opening to the concert. An equally adroit account of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of Christina Rosetti’s Sleep followed, the section ‘and when she wakes’ allowing an excuse for a blossoming of the dynamic.
Holst’s Nunc Dimittis is well-known to choral singers, as it often provides a suitable singleton Evensong pairing for a catholic composer’s Magnificat. The opening of this was very special indeed – Holst’s choral build-up on the word ‘Nunc’ emerging from almost a hum – and the subsequent gently phrased interchanges between sopranos and altos and tenors and basses were luminous.
Each of the Cadogan Hall Proms features (to mark the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage) a work by a female composer, and Laura Mvula’s three-song cycle Love Like a Lion (texts by Ben Okri) is a charming exploration of the beginnings, endings, and new possibilities of love, and it was given a thoroughly nuanced performance. ‘Like a child’ is quiet and melody-led, underscored by largely homophonic close harmony. ‘I will not die (for him)’ consists of angular melodies – exchanged between tenor and soprano soloists – that put the listener in mind of the solo Spirituals recorded by Jessye Norman. It ends (‘living is pain not insanity’) on a unison choral one-note ostinato. ‘Love Like a Lion’ – celebrating the poet’s freedom to love again – begins in deliciously busy and syncopated homophony, and moves to a gentle, rocking coda that closes on a solo soprano singing ‘I wear shoes of eagle’s wings’.
The six songs in Parry’s Songs of Farewell provide many opportunities for drama; they speak of love and pain, faith, triumph and uncertainty, and Parry’s brilliant and subtle scoring (with the gradual increase of voice parts, such that the final ‘Lord, let me know mine end’ is scored for eight-part double choir) only adds to this. Oramo and the BBC Singers squeezed every drop of emotion out of the work from the gradual crescendo on the iterations of ‘My soul …’ at the opening of ‘My soul, there is a country’ to the brief, suddenly-pulled-back fortissimo that led to the quietest close at the end of ‘Lord, let me know mine end’. All the way through there were magical moments: the light and pointed ‘O come quickly’ in ‘Never, weather-beaten sail’; the growing and receding dynamic at the end of ‘There is an old belief’; the well-controlled accretion of voices, as well as the gently unfolding counterpoint in ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’. A perfect marking of the anniversary of Parry’s own end.