Concert Review: BBC Singers — Baroque Spring and British Music

Can I just say that one of my favorite things about living in the UK is the BBC? Not only do they stream a lot of great stuff online, but they also offer chances to attend radio and TV recording sessions for free. All you have to do is go online, find a concert/recording you want to attend, and register for a chance to win tickets. It’s not a guarantee you’ll get the tickets but if you do there is no cost involved. Love it.

So thanks to the BBC, I was lucky enough to win tickets to a concert for Wednesday, 13 March, called “Baroque Spring and British Music” that would be recorded live for BBC Radio 3. The concert featured the well-known BBC Singers conducted by Andrew Griffiths and accompanied by David Miller on theorbo, Kirsty Whatley on baroque harp, and James McVinnie on organ. It took place at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge, a pretty little Anglican church near Hyde Park Corner, and was presented by Reverend Richard Coles, who has a lovely radio voice and offered some insight and history in between pieces.

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The program featured Passion music — centering on Jesus’ crucifixion and suffering — both in honor of the coming of spring and for Easter at the end of the month. Three composers were represented, two Baroque and one living, and each piece was broken up and sprinkled throughout the program to highlight contrasts and similarities between each composer’s work (this reminded me of Oberlin’s Collegium Musicum concerts). Antonio Lotti’s (1666-1740) Crucifixus a 6, a 8, and a 10 started, bisected, and ended the concert. Three gorgeous settings of:

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis / Sub Pontio Pilato: / Passus et sepultus est.

“He was indeed crucified for us / at the hands of Pontius Pilate: / he suffered and was buried.”

Lotti’s interweaving, yearning harmonies hearken back to Renaissance polyphony and the BBC Singers executed them beautifully. (This reminded me of the almost heartbreaking setting of this text by Mozart in his “Coronation” Mass in C, K.317 — the slow, minor-key Crucifixus interrupts the earnest, bouncy Credo for a stark contrast. Listen to that here. It was my favorite part to sing when I sang it with Oberlin’s Musical Union in May 2010.)

But back to this concert. The other Baroque composer represented was Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), best known for his keyboard sonatas. No sonatas on this day. Instead, we heard his Stabat mater for ten voices; it was divided in two parts, bookending the second part of MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responsories (keep reading to learn about that). The Stabat mater text focuses on Mary’s feelings and emotions as she sees her Son suffering on the cross. A beautiful piece, with more of those Renaissance-like interwoven harmonies. The Inflammatus et accensus (“Though I burn and am aflame”) section featured some wicked melisma on “inflammatus” that was crisply executed by a tenor and a soprano.

To balance the Baroque and represent the “British Music” part of the concert’s title was James MacMillan’s (b. 1959) Tenebrae Responsories, written in 2006 and set to a text about the darkness (tenebrae) that descended when Jesus was crucified. The piece is in three parts. In the tradition of contemporary choral composers like Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen, MacMillan’s piece uses harmonies and polyphony that could pass for Renaissance but has a bit of edginess — in sometime-jarring dissonances, textures, and outbursts — that pushes them into the modern sphere. The third movement of MacMillan’s TenebraeJesum tradidit impius (“The wicked man betrayed Jesus”), held me rapt with its chant-like bass line and difficult turns and ornamentation. The melody sounded modal, Far Eastern (dare I say “Oriental”?) at parts. It ends quietly and dramatically, with a soprano humming a haunting melody over and over as she slowly exits the room.

Andrew Griffiths drew exquisite performances from the BBC Singers. Their Latin diction was excellent and they blended beautifully. The abrupt outbursts and sometimes-strange harmonies made the MacMillan piece sounded quite difficult to sing, but this choir pulled it off magnificently.

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