A Welsh metaphysical poet and an Italian polymath may seem an improbable coupling, but they provided the creative spark for two choral meditations on the afterlife by past and present British composers.
Cecilia McDowall’s Da Vinci Requiem is for the centenary of the Wimbledon Choral Society and the 500th-anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, which fell on May 2. It fuses Latin texts with extracts from Leonardo’s notebooks which, together with verses from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, reflect on mortality. Like much of McDowall’s music, this seven-movement, thirty-five-minute Requiem combines expressive lyricism with a natural facility for choral writing.
But one of the tests is the ability to create distinctions in character, colour and weight, a challenge in which McDowall only partially succeeds. In this premiere performance she was not helped by issues of balance and clarity of words. Had Neil Ferris tamed the woodwinds and brass we might have heard more of Kate Royal’s lightweight soprano. She caught the spirit of ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ (Rossetti) but often failed to project its text, and while Roderick Williams’s warm baritone fared slightly better, his ‘O you who are asleep’ was peppered with busy orchestral detail that made me long for surtitles. Diction from the WCS could also have been improved, but it sang with conviction, bringing considerable vigour and joyful clamour ('Sanctus') or grateful tone ('Lux aeterna').
Opening the first half Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs (to poems by George Herbert) showcased the WCS’s firm timbre and hushed intimacy. Ferris galvanised the Songs’ celebratory outer sections and brought rapture to ‘Love bade me welcome’, exquisitely sung by Williams and the choir.
Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto was then given a highly characterful outing, its bluesy playfulness and dreamy introspection underlined by the Philharmonia and Martin James Bartlett. The transparency of his playing impressed, passagework clean and bright-toned and dreamy languor beautifully nuanced. Bartlett’s delicacy of touch served the Adagio well, beguiling woodwind contributions floating above sparkling piano figuration with the climax smoothly integrated into a shapely span. The Presto Finale was like a runaway train, very exciting, and arriving at the buffers in one piece.