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Prom 70: BBC Singers, Temple Church Choir, Hill | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 70: BBC Singers, Temple Church Choir, Hill

Prom 70: BBC Singers, Temple Church Choir, Hill

A choral salute to centenarians Britten and George Lloyd, half good, half curious

David Hill, gearing up for the afterlife and George Lloyd's Requiem John Wood

Purity and holiness filled the air. Boy choristers in red cassocks filed onto the platform. The BBC announcer, paraded soon after, promised “choral music to carry us into the after life”. Had I come to the right place? Was I attending my own funeral service? 

I needn’t have worried. This was only a Late Night Prom, not of the meatiest kind maybe, but of a kind certainly to tickle the heart of Proms director and British music enthusiast Roger Wright. Two composer centenaries were neatly combined, both of them home grown, born in 1913. One was Benjamin Britten, fantastically gifted, nearly always fortune’s child; unlike the other, George Lloyd, a tuneful but much slighter talent, battered by life, with audiences and live performances mostly scarce. His retro romantic music, buffed with jolly tunes, has found admirers; in June he even managed to be “Composer of the Week” on BBC Radio 3, where Wright of course is the Controller.

The day of wrath proves just a mild scolding

This concert unveiled the London premiere of his last completed work, the Requiem written in 1997-8, officially dedicated to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, though the shadows of his own mortality are all-pervading. One couldn’t say the piece took the Albert Hall by storm. The audience was scattered, with ample room in the arena for sunbathing flat out on the floor, or even erecting a tent. Nor could the gathered performers – the 28 voices of the BBC Singers, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, organist Greg Morris – muster much heft. David Hill, choral conductor par excellence, directed with clarity and evident passion, though he couldn’t transform the flimsy odd bits and bobs that make up this Requiem into a work of stature. 

Like Fauré, like Brahms, Lloyd’s Requiem sets out to console, not torment. In the Dies irae, the day of wrath proves just a mild scolding; while the blasting trumpets of Tuba mirum seem to be childhood toys, capable only of a toot and twiddle.  Convincing? Not really. Nor was the curious solo part, nobly suffered by Iestyn Davies.  Most composers who write for counter-tenors value their falsetto pipings; Lloyd, perversely, consigns the soloist much of the time to grovelling in the stony earth just beyond the voice’s bottom register. It’s much to Davies’ credit that he could find any notes at all. 

He was also handed some of the music’s barest phrases. Among Lloyd’s eccentric patchwork of plainsong remnants, tunes not really worth humming, and harmonies that wouldn’t frighten a dog, some passing pleasures still remained. There were moments of chaste beauty; intriguing shifting textures and chromatics; an air of touching sincerity, at its most affecting perhaps in Recordare, the prayer for redemption. But it remained on the whole a thin experience. I wait with bated breath for Lloyd’s wartime memento, the HMS Trinidad March, featured in Saturday’s Last Night of the Proms. 

Before Lloyd in old age we had Britten in youth, exemplified in his first choral work, the unaccompanied A Boy was Born, finished when he was a precocious sprat of 20. The BBC Singers were joined for this by the boys in red, from the Temple Church Choir, all with angel voices. This was a treat: sophisticated, many-layered music, stamped with signs of the Britten to come, most dextrously performed, with due regard even paid to “authentic” medieval pronunciations. Perhaps I was in heaven after all.

The audience was scattered, with ample room in the arena for sunbathing flat out on the floor, or even erecting a tent


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I remain eternally grateful that George Lloyd didn't waste his time and talent writing for critics. His last work - reviewed with as much of a nod to the critic's own choice of phrase as to the circumstances that saw this work completed just before the composer's death - is perhaps in the shadow of his "Symphonic Mass". It certainly cannot be said that he lacked an affinity for the human voice. His own admiration for Verdi indicates his considerable love and appreciation. Lloyd's comprehensive CV contains much that is fine - and often better than anything from his 20th century contemporaries, with some of his symphonies well ahead in the orchestral stakes, despite the adulation heaped on others whose own careers did not founder on the demands made by war. One final question: was the applause for "Requiem" more sustained than that for the Britten piece? I believe so.

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