Studio concerts have long formed a significant though easily overlooked component of the BBC Singers' activities, and this coupling of English a cappella pieces composed almost a century apart made for an absorbing and also enlightening hour's worth of music.
Known primarily for his impressive sequence of orchestral and chamber works, John Pickard has written several major vocal compositions – including the Edward Thomas song-cycle The Borders of Sleep and Requiem after Sacheverell Sitwell entitled Agamemnon’s Tomb. Mass for Troubled Times is less a setting of the Mass than treatment of lines from that text, compiled by Gavin d'Costa who has interspersed them with lines drawn from numerous other sources – T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell and Matthew Arnold, along with extracts from the Syriac Orthodox Liturgy, the Shahada and Qur'an. The key is provided by a Turkish Twitter hashtag from 2015, “Humanity washed ashore”, that indicates the flight from Aleppo and drowning of Ayesha – whose tragic story provides emotional focus for the formal unfolding of this work.
Headed by an 'Introitus' that sets out these defining aspects, Pickard's work takes in the five customary sections of the Mass – reaching a dramatic apex at the culmination of the 'Gloria' then maintaining the accrued intensity through those that follow, before concluding with the juxtaposition of lines from William Blake with the thrice-repeated 'Agnus Dei' that – set next to an evocation of the child's body just off the shore at Palermo – makes for an ending whose poignancy is shorn of sentiment thanks to the understated eloquence of Pickard’s response.
With its purposeful integration of a wide range of vocal techniques and demanding tessitura, Mass for Troubled Times would be a tough assignment for any choir, but one that the eighteen-strong BBC Singers met with assurance as directed by Andrew Griffiths (a rising star among choral conductors). Prior to this, he had presided over a comparably fine account of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Mass in G-minor (1921). One of a number of pieces emerging in the aftermath of the First World War, this combines its composer’s love for Tudor choral music with a harmonic sense wholly of its own time. Texturally its interplay of four solo parts and double choir creates waves of sound as fastidious timbrally as they are dynamically; the BBC Singers ensuring this music's sonic allure was no less evident than its expressive fervency.
A powerful and rewarding juxtaposition, then, which was ideally suited to the acoustic of St Peter's Eaton Square in terms of overall textural clarity and depth of sonority. Hopefully the BBC Singers will have the opportunity to repeat the Pickard and soon.
- Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during Afternoon Concert on February 12 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)