Elgar Sea Pictures
Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, leader Amyn Merchant
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, director Gavin Carr
David Hill: conductor
Jennifer Johnson: mezzo soprano (Elgar)
Emma Bell: soprano (Brahms)
Gareth Brynmor John: baritone
THIS week the BSO’s concert at the Lighthouse coupled two nineteenth-century works for orchestra and voices. In the first half of the concert, Jennifer Johnson was a powerful yet warm-toned soloist in Elgar’s Sea Pictures, a song-cycle written in the closing years of the century. In the second half, the BSO Chorus took centre stage in a moving and memorable performance of Brahms’ German Requiem, from the 1860s.
In Elgar’s Sea Pictures, the five songs are loosely linked by being settings of poems where the sea is the background or the subject. Elgar’s orchestration is a constant source of delight, for example in the first song, where bass drum and tamtam provide a gentle throb underpinning the sound while the harp flourishes on high. In this work, as in the Brahms, the organ is used to provide a deep foundation for the sound in louder passages. Johnson’s characterful mezzo had no trouble holding its own against the big orchestra, and she pointed up every nuance of the poems in at times an almost actorly way. This was a beautifully accomplished and satisfying performance of an ever-popular work.
After the interval, the 140-odd strong BSO Chorus assembled behind the orchestra, the sopranos overspilling into the space usually occupied by the BSO percussion section. The challenges of maintaining discipline and unanimity in the sound of such huge forces is obvious, but any doubts were immediately dispelled by the breathtakingly hushed ‘Selig sind’ opening, and the chorus’s ability to move as one became apparent, almost as a flock of starlings seems linked by some weird collective consciousness. Huge congratulations are due to chorus director Gavin Carr for the hours of hard work in rehearsal that must have preceded this deeply impressive display of seemingly effortless unanimity, and also to David Hill, conducting without a score and maintaining minutely-detailed liaison with his singers and players throughout.
Brahms’ Requiem is characterised by an attention more to the needs of the bereaved more than those of the departed. Written in the language people use in their everyday lives rather than in Latin, it faces the grief and pain of bereavement squarely, while most movements move towards consolation, acceptance and hope. The chorus is centrally involved throughout, although sparing use is also made of soprano and baritone soloists. Gareth Brynmor John has a beautifully mellifluous baritone, although I could have happily taken a more dramatic and anguished characterisation of his words, given their subject matter. Emma Bell was a late stand-in for the original indisposed soprano, but one would never have known this from her confident, secure soaring lines.
Needless to say, the BSO provided admirable support, with Owain Bailey’s piccolo prominent in the Brahms. But the undoubted stars of the evening were the members of the BSO chorus.
The concert was live on Radio 3, and can be heard via this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000bf6y