Concert Review

PROM 45: Sacred pieces by Copland, Billings, Ives, Schuman & Bernstein, RAH 17 August, 2000 (SD)

 This late-night concert formed part of the Millennium Proms season's theme of music 'inspired by man's relationship with God' and, more specifically, Psalm settings. Though not all Psalm settings, all five works were by American composers, from the so-called 'father of American music', William Billings (d.1800) through to Leonard Bernstein.

Copland's In the Beginning is a large-scale motet for mezzo-soprano and mixed chorus which sets a sequence of verses from the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis. It is polytonal in style, with jazz rhythms, syllabic word-setting and slow-moving harmony; its broad, hymn-like final apotheosis suggests traditional American hymn-singing. Sarah Connolly's singing as the narrator is masterful; her words, like the choir's, are excellent and her style of delivery is in line with Copland's own instructions, firm but less strident than Ameral Gunson on an EMI recording. The BBC Singers' coped magnificently with the wide, atonal intervals and the fact that the soloist often sings against the choir tonally. One or two sopranos obtrude slightly.

Ives achieved some of the most radical works of his entire output in his choral psalms of the 1890s. (During this time, paradoxically, he was working as organist and choirmaster in several New England churches). Ives takes experimentation to extremes in his three-and-a-half minute Psalm 54 setting, with its mixture of near-diatonic concorde and extreme dissonance, its whole-tone progressions and harmonically involved central double canon. It is hard to believe that Verdi and Brahms were still active when he wrote it in 1894. He sketched his Psalm 90 in 1893-94 but rewrote it around 1900, and subsequently reconstructed it from memory as late as 1923-24 when the score was lost. Surprisingly, it sounds more traditional than Psalm 54, and according to Ives's wife was 'the only one of his works that satisfied him'. As with Psalm 54 it is built on the contrast of the diatonic and the heavily chromatic. The whole work is underpinned by a reassuring low C on the organ, evoking an eternal presence, and tubular bells and a gong at the end also represent the eternal, like waves lapping against the shore. Each verse is contrasted with the last in a continually shifting kaleidoscope of vocal colour. The choir's words were not always clear in the wash of notes and the tenor solo sounded rather strangled.

William Schuman's settings of Walt Whitman, Carols of Death (1958), are the antithesis of the positive energy of In the Beginning. Their low, close, dark harmonies and semitonal rises create a sense of mystery and trepidation. The word setting is highly expressive, for example the hairpins on 'be not impatient' in the first carol. No 2, 'The Unknown Region,' has a slow-fast-slow structure, in which the ending comes as a relief; the basses on sustained bottom notes and other parts form chords above it. No 3, 'To All, to Each', is very soothing, and rhythmically chorale-like, Taveneresque in its simplicity. The choir produced very controlled, expressive soft singing.

The highlight of the concert, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, was commissioned by Dean Walter Hussey of Chichester Cathedral for the Chichester Festival in 1965. Much of it is based on drafts for Bernstein's cancelled Broadway musical The Skin of our Teeth and it includes several reminders of West Side Story, for example in the lilting, lovesong-like third-movement choral melody or the lilting, jazzy rhythms (such as 7/8 or 20/4) and percussion writing (including tam tam) in the first movement. Bernstein quotes a whole psalm and an extract of another in each movement, and each time the relationship between the two, musically and texturally, is different. He set the Hebrew text, which, together with many melodic touches such as frequent flattened thirds, gives a very Jewish feel to the work. The BBC Singers gave an exciting, yet highly precise, performance, though they were handicapped by the reduced forces (organ, harp and percussion replaced full orchestra) and Stephen Cleobury is too schooled in the English choral tradition to achieve quite the swing that Bernstein himself gave it in his 1965 orchestral recording. And although organ, harp and percussion played admirably I missed the lush vivid character of the third movement's introduction. But despite this, choir and instruments captured the essence of this eclectic yet highly compelling work. The alto, Robin Tyson, taking the treble solo in the second movement, sang the lovely Hebrew words of Psalm 23 with great feeling and a touching sense of innocence.

Sarah Dunlop


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