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Crouch End Festival Chorus at the Barbican

Barbican Hall
22nd January 2006

With a world apparently ever more ready to use torture it seemed entirely appropriate that the CEFC should not only dedicate a programme to raising funds for the Medical Foundation for the care of Victims of Torture but should include works which poignantly and effectively face the problem. Britten's Ballad of Heroes may take the Spanish Civil War as its point of reference but Auden's text is as uncomfortably stark as it was half a century ago. The hard-edged trumpet fanfares set the tone of world-weariness and unease which the chorus pick up. It is not until we get to they were men that the musical texture begins to flower but it is short lived and the pain quickly returns. The Scherzo is bitter throughout and the tenor solo - nobly sung by James Oxley - brings little sense of ease. The off stage trumpets at the end seem to stand like Janus, echoing the Spanish pain but pre-figuring the torment to come from World War Two. Though there are obvious connections to the War Requiem, Ballad for Heroes has a voice of its own and is far more than a first attempt at a finer work. In many ways it is also more thought provoking.

James Macmillan's Cantos Sagrados brings us even closer to home with the poems of the mothers of the 'lost' in Argentina. He sets three poems against the backdrop of Latin liturgical texts, though the former heavily prevail. The anger which throbs through Identity is undeniable and it is not eased by the rather placid tones of Libera animas omnium. The Latin is so overtly about them not us. Virgin of Guadalupe is even more vitriolic. How can the Catholic Church adopt the same Saint as supporter of the massacred Indians and the Spaniards who massacred them? Two shrines for the Virgin of Guadalupe seem to be at loggerheads, and it is the poor who lose out each time. James Macmillan's gentle lullaby subtly underplays the tension within the text.

Ariel Dorfman's Sun Stone pits the execution of a political prisoner with the crucifixion. Its simplicity is amazingly effective and moving. It does not strive for emotional effect, letting the text speak for itself and the growing dynamic intensity suggest the impact we should feel. The chorus end up chanting Forgive us, companero - Čand we know it is we who need both to forgive and be forgiven.

After such an intense first half, Philip Glass' Itaip˙ seemed like a relaxation, though its ease on the ear is deceptive. The orchestration for the work, composed in 1989 as part of a Nature triptych, is more overtly developmental than in many of his other compositions, having clearly defined structures and a sense of progress within the narrative line. Glass does not mean us to follow the text, which is quickly lost to sight, but does intend that we follow the emotional journey. That this is not wholly satisfying is essentially his own problem rather than that of the performers. The lengthy opening Mato Grosso is theoretically telling the story of the creation of land and water, but is effectively a vision of the country itself often reminiscent of Ma Vlast. Far more satisfying at the two central movements where the rippling strings and piled up choral parts in The Lake recall some of his finest writing in Satyagraha . The score has intensely, often radiantly, beautiful writing which sweeps us along. The women sing like sirens, luring the men not to their fate but to exult in the beauty of creation. It seems to be a female dominated society, powerful but devoid of violence. That power reaches a bottle-neck at The Dam producing one of the finest musical expressions of urgency, force and intensity I can recall. This is energy at its most basic but unthreatening and creative. I have to admit I am not sure what Glass intended in the final section. To the Sea dissipates the power he has built up and lulls us into a false sense of quite expectation which simply does away. Naturalistically that is of course what happens with the water passing through any dam but musically it makes for a rather disappointing ending.

Crouch End Festival Chorus covered themselves in glory again, particularly during the first half, and the Aurelian Symphony Orchestra were up to the challenges throughout. David Temple seemed to have all at his fingertips, moulding his forces with skill and ease.

The same forces can be caught again at the Barbican Hall on 18 March for Verdi's Requiem, while David Temple will conduct the Hertfordshire Chorus in The Dream of Gerontius in St Albans Cathedral on 18 February. Reviews of both performances will appear on our website immediately after the event and be published in the May edition of the magazine.

BH