This concert launched the London Concert Choir's 50th anniversary season, which they chose to celebrate by devoting the first half of the concert to five choral works from the last fifty years, all unaccompanied, and were balanced in the second by old(er) favourite Carmina Burana (1937).
Walton was, in his youth, a chorister himself, so has some personal insight into composing for choirs. In this particular case, the insight appears to have been: keep it snappy so the choirboys don't get too bored. This Missa Brevis is extremely brief; however, even if it were longer it would not bore, as the melodies, harmonies and textures sound fresh and at times, unexpected. When introducing Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium, conductor Mark Forkgen used the word 'beautiful' three times, which suggests trying a little too hard to convince – something which is unnecessary in the case of genuinely beautiful music. Of course, beauty is in the ear of the beholder, but although worthily sung by the choir, to my ears no amount of dynamic contrast (of which there was a great deal) could save it from dullness. Tavener's Funeral Ikos, on the other hand, infuses simple lines and sustained harmonies with glowing intensity, and it was in this third piece, contemplative as it is, that the choir really came to life, making the previous two – pleasant enough though they were – sound like a vocal warm-up in comparison. This form improved further in Whitacre's Water Night; the choir clearly enjoyed the challenge of performing a piece full of thick tone-clusters, simultaneous suspensions and resolutions, and multiple overlaid melodic lines, as did I listening to it. The alto section in particular produced a very solid, warm tone. The last piece of the set technically counts as both English and American music, in that Stucky's Whispers has threaded through it fragments of Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus, sung by a small group of singers set apart from the main chorus. Again, this was a gem of a performance, the Byrd fragments surfacing then submerging delicately into the perfectly-balanced tides of the larger mass of voices.
For the second half, the choir were joined by the two pianists and six percussionists required for the reduced-score version of Carmina. Although authorised by the composer, this can be quite a tricky ensemble to manage, particularly in terms of balance. Dynamically there were some issues, such as pianissimi on the pianos that came across as tentative-sounding, and fortissimi where the noisier percussion were clearly holding back due to concern about drowning out everyone else. While this is sensible and restrained, I cannot help feeling that Carmina is not and should not be a sensible restrained piece. There was also a balance issue – although the 'fault' of the scoring rather than the performers – between high and low, with higher pitches coming through clearly, but power in the bass register somewhat lacking (despite the best efforts of the two pianists, thumping out the octaves that begin "O Fortuna" for all they were worth). Similar dynamic and pitch issues were occurring in the chorus, due to the traditional problem of choirs regarding female/male ratio. I intend no disservice to the male singers, particularly the 1st tenors locked in heroic struggle with Orff's punishing tessitura, but the overall effect was very top-heavy. Despite the matter of an oestrogen/testosterone imbalance, however, the singing was appropriately lusty throughout.
Soprano soloist Erica Eloff has exactly the kind of crystal-clear tone needed for this part, and some small intonational inaccuracies and early nervousness were easily forgiven in light of the displayed dynamic control in "Stetit puella", tone colouring in "In trutina" and flexibility in "Dulcissime". Counter-tenor Andrew Radley was employed in the small role of Dead Swan On Stick, and sounded suitably mournful; however, he sounded entirely comfortable singing his high Cs and Ds, and this is why in my opinion the part should be sung by a tenor (as in the score): it needs to be outside the comfort zone to properly convey the pain! Of the three soloists, the baritone almost certainly gets to have the most fun, and William Berger clearly enjoyed his scene-stealing antics as the drunken abbot. He put a great deal of character and vocal acting into each of his arias (although perhaps a little heavy on the lasciviousness in "Tempus est iocundum") without ever compromising a rich, warm tone, and was highly impressive in the cadenza-esque high flights of "Dies nox et omnia". As there were no children on stage I was hoping that this performance would replace the scored Ragazzi with adult sopranos, as is sometimes done. (It is apparently becoming more common to do this, due to parents' and teachers' discomfort at the idea of small children singing lines about desire, men and women's coupling, and being burning with love.) However, there was in fact a group of children concealed up in the gallery; the antiphonal effect of this worked well, and the children's voices were even not too unpleasant.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable concert, and I wish the London Concert Choir the best for the rest of their 50th anniversary season.