While they have worked often in an orchestral context, Sakari Oramo had not previously directed the BBC Singers in an a cappella guise, so making the sixth of this season's Proms Chamber Music recitals a notable event apart from the programme – which, in its providing a viable overview of English unaccompanied choral music from the early-twentieth-century, needed no justification.
The initial three pieces are all representative of their composers at the time of writing, even though they only reached publication years after the event. Thus, Frank Bridge's wistful setting (1904) of Shelley's evergreen verse which was unsuccessful in a competition and remained unpublished until 1979; the same year in which Gustav Holst's luminous and latterly ecstatic take on the doxology (1915) itself became available. Between these, Ralph Vaughan Williams weighed in with one of his most impressive early works – a setting of Christina Rossetti (1902) which captures the latter's intimations of immortality in probing and assured terms. Quite how assured was the London Magpie Madrigal Society in negotiating its dense harmonies and intricate textures can now only be surmised.
Each of these lunchtime recitals features a BBC commission from a female composer, and here it fell to Laura Mvula – her Love Like a Lion (2018) comprising three settings of poems specially written by Ben Okri. These encapsulate the archetypal stages of romantic attraction, separation and regeneration – to which Mvula responds with music in turn alluring, plangent and decisive. While the juxtaposing of solo and ensemble voices in the central piece promised more than it delivered, the soulfulness and insouciance of those either side confirmed a ready identification with the a cappella medium. Mvula, who had to be coaxed onto the platform by Oramo, need not have felt embarrassed by her personable and characterful contribution to this programme.
Its culmination in every sense was provided by Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell (1915). If not quite his final work, the valedictory nature of these settings is unmistakable – for all that the composer varies both their expression and texture considerably. The meditative treatment accorded Henry Vaughan's 'My soul, there is a country' is followed by a laconic setting of John Davies's 'I know my soul hath power to know all things'; becoming rapturous in Thomas Campion's 'Never weather-beaten sail' and John Gibson Lockhart's 'There is an old belief'. A dramatic setting of John Donne's 'At the round earth's imagined corners' prepares for 'Lord, let me know mine end' from Psalm Thirty-Nine, drawing upon eight-part double chorus in music combative, confessional and ultimately affirmative.
Oramo and the BBC Singers evidently relished this rare opportunity to present these impressive pieces as a totality, making for a handsome tribute to this still underestimated composer in the centenary of his death. Indeed, the restrained humanity – devoid of sentimentality – they convey seems no less relevant today than it was in the fractious and war-torn environment of one-hundred years ago.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms