Royal Festival Hall
02 November 2023
It was a good idea to open this large scale choral concert with Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Solemn Prelude because it set the mood for what was to come. It was performed with lots of lyricism, bombast, fresh charm and excellent work from three trombones. And my goodness SCT could turn out a good tune. If only this music – and I thought the same about his Ballade in A minor recently – were heard more often I’m convinced the public would soon be voting it top of the classical music charts.
Then came Amy Beech’s Canticle of the Sun which was completely new to me. It’s a choral setting, for orchestra, choir and four soloists of words by St Francis of Assisi translated by Matthew Arnold which sounds very much like Parry when it gets going. The passage which opens with lovely growling basses followed by unaccompanied quartet of singers was especially striking. The choir faces a challenge in Royal Festival Hall because the altos are, perforce, so far from the sopranos although most of them are facing each other across the orchestra. Hill has found ways of making it work, though and there was some lovely singing in this piece with an immaculately controlled morendo ending.
But the main event was, of course, Brahms’s German Requiem with all its plangent mood and tempo changes. This was an intelligently measured rendering in which Hill really got the balance right and leaned on the detail. I have never before, for example, noticed quite how much timp there is in this piece (I’ve sung it many times but never played in the orchestra). Here we heard every single drum beat under Hill’s very clear downbeat. At the very end, I liked the way he made sure we heard the harp too because it can so easily get lost.
We got all the sweetness and warmth from the choir that Wie lieblick sind deine Wohnungen needs but without self-indulgence and there was some good staccato work in Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit although Clare Rutter sang the soprano solo with too much vibrato for my taste. Baritone Ross Ramgorin made a decent job of both his numbers but it was really the choir which deserved the most applause – and got it.