BBC Proms reviews

Proms at … Southwark Cathedral, London

12 August 2017

This is the second year in which the Proms’ Saturday matinees at Cadogan Hall have been replaced by ‘Proms at … ’ events, with five concerts being held in venues away from the Royal Albert Hall. With each there is a clear attempt to match the music to the ambience and architecture of the venue, and in this instance the connection between music and place felt obvious as religious works were performed in Southwark Cathedral. Nevertheless, the recent attacks on London Bridge and Borough Market, while coming long after the concert was conceived, reinforced the Cathedral’s long-standing role as a haven of tranquillity and a beacon of light in the heart of a busy city. As a result, to sing Palestrina there when the Rome that he knew ‘blended the music of divine worship with the noises of the street’ felt especially appropriate.

The BBC Singers, conducted by David Hill in his last concert as their decade- long chief conductor, sang Palestrina’s Motet Confitebor tibi, Domine and Missa of the same name. The composer recycled elements of the first, a seven minute Easter Motet of 1572, in the second, which was created in 1585. This made the opportunity to hear them together, and thus appreciate the many points of contrapuntal imitation shared by both works, most welcome.

The BBC Singers produced a beautiful and balanced sound in which the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ of the Missa maintained a seemingly effortless flow, and the ‘Sanctus’ saw the several solo voices involved penetrate the air to good effect. For these polyphonal works, the choir stood under the Crossing, where its sound had the space to grow just a little fuller in the air without ever falling foul of uncomfortable echoes.

The final piece on the programme was In the Land of Uz, a world premiere from the current Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir. Telling the Old Testament story of Job, it might broadly be described as an oratorio although the small size of the orchestral forces relative to the choir is unusual, and the manner in which each instrumentalist essentially becomes a soloist virtually unique.

As it employed appropriate verses from the Bible, the thirty-five minute piece went through several sections, with each being delivered by a combination of narrator, choir, solo tenor (who took on the part of Job), viola, tuba, double bass, soprano saxophone, trumpet and organ. For example, the text of the Prologue was initially delivered by the narrator until halfway through when the tenor took over. As the narrator spoke the choir often ‘echoed’ his lines or individual words, as they also chanted the names of Job’s children.

Many sections saw a solo instrument such as the viola take centre-stage alongside, for example, the tenor soloist (the excellent Adrian Thompson). The organ sometimes dominated the proceedings but more often ‘danced’ a light accompaniment to the choral singing. The trumpet was situated in the Cathedral Choir, a long way behind the singers, to give the impression of a sound coming from afar and to maintain the right sense of balance. In this way, the choir seemed to chant its part of the story, while the use of soloists (both vocal and instrumental) enabled us to invest a great emotional interest in the piece as we saw Job go on his journey from despair to enlightenment. There was also a serendipitous moment as the clouds broke and light flooded into the Cathedral at the same time as Job understood the truth of God.

It is a sad fact that many Proms premieres subsequently struggle to find the right home to enjoy further performances. It is hard, however, to see In the Land of Uz having any such difficulties, given the quality of the piece and the fact that, with the small instrumental forces it requires, it should prove an excellent fit for many a good choir.

This Prom will be available on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer for thirty days. The ‘Proms at … ’ events continue at the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham on 26 August, Wilton’s Music Hall on 2 September and The Tanks at Tate Modern on 6 September. For further details and tickets visit the BBC Proms website.

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Proms at … Southwark Cathedral, London