Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Vespers and African Twilight review – a textured nightscape at the Barbican

19 May 2023

The BBC Singers and cellist/vocalist/percussionist Abel Selaocoe present a fusion of Rachmaninov’s ‘All-night Vigil’ and folksongs and improvisations arising from the musical traditions of Africa.

Milton Court

Milton Court (Photo: Em Davis)

Rachmaninov’s ‘Vespers’ (more properly called ‘All-night Vigil’, as the content of the service takes in the Orthodox equivalents of Vespers Compline and Matins) presents a challenge as a concert work; the musical components of the service, as set by the composer, are only just over an hour long, and the piece’s devotional and emotional completeness tends to make any companion piece feel out of place. Fashion in recent years has been, then, to perform its movements with sympathetic short interpolations so as to make a satisfying concert that leaves audiences feeling they have had their money’s worth: these may be readings, other pieces from the Orthodox repertoire, or appropriate piano works by Rachmaninov. Friday’s concert followed this pattern, and aimed to create a ‘nightscape’ in which Rachmaninov’s lush material (or, at least, most of it, as some of the movements were omitted) was complemented by extended improvisations and folksong arrangements from several African cultural traditions, created and curated by the multitalented South African cellist and vocalist Abel Selaocoe.

The BBC Singers were in good form under their conductor Sofi Jeannin, and it is probably fair to say that their work with her and Bob Chilcott in recent years has transformed the ensemble into a choir capable of the blend and balance that’s needed for the Rachmaninov (and tipping the scales in favour of the ensemble’s retention in the light of the recent furore). The subtle (and not-so-subtle) shifts in speed and dynamic that the piece requires for its instantly recognisable cultural territory were generally performed with élan and a sure understanding of style: the yearning of the tenor solo over a quiet, rocking chorus in ‘Nine otpushchayesi’ was brought out to the full (and performed, with cello rather than tenor, equally beautifully as an encore); the sprightliness of ‘Khvalitye imya Gospdne’ and ‘Vzbrannoy voyevode’ was given the lightest of touches; the subtle variations of ‘quiet’ at the end of ‘Blagosloven yesi Gospodi’ were handled with surety – and, indeed, the requirements for the tiniest of pianissimi that occur throughout the piece were masterfully blended. These days, the work is generally performed with a bit more severity and less rubato than many recordings from the 20th century, and Jeannin opted for this approach. It was probably a wise decision, given the somewhat dry acoustic of the Milton Court auditorium, but one still missed those achingly extended builds and decays that came with ‘Soviet Romanticism’ (the organic ebb and flow of the Great Doxology really works with this kind of treatment), and, in this performance, a more emotionally labile approach would have made for a better blend with Selaocoe’s material.

“Friday’s concert… aimed to create a ‘nightscape’…”

And here, in a sense, is where the fusion intended didn’t quite work. Selaocoe himself is a whirlwind of physical presence and brilliant performance, and his arrangements/improvisations all come from a fierce emotional core. He shifted unerringly from throat singing to accusatory shouting; to using his cello as a percussion instrument to a fingerboard pizzicato full of upper harmonics; and then to lush or frenetic bowing techniques.

The music was a blend of chant and hymnody of South African heritage – but drawing on traditions from other African cultures – and European compositional tropes from 20th century Modernism to Minimalism, with the odd smattering of near-quotes from Baroque works. It brought in choral passages that might be highly rhythmic or calming homophonic underlay; he armed the chorus with percussive expression through clapping or by playing instruments, and he invited audience participation in repeating, round-like singing. His sections of the performance were inspiring, exciting, texturally complex, and jammed full of raw and profoundly moving emotion held in a framework of intensely concentrated talent (the point at which he duetted with himself, alternating his light tenor and throat singing voices was breathtaking). While you could glean the intent of the combination of his material and the Rachmaninov into a seamless portrayal of a ‘dreamworld’ of alternating repose and imagined activity, the slightly ‘buttoned-up’ performance of the Russian work didn’t quite touch Selaocoe’s sound world, and what one wanted from the choral contribution to the African inspired material was possibly not to be gained from the ‘dad dancing’ of a group of singers wearing formal evening clothes.

The concert will be broadcast on Radio 3’s ‘In Concert’ on Tuesday 23 May.

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