Monday, 31 March 2014

Portrait Choir - Anonymity

Greg Batsleer and the Portrait Choir
Greg Batsleer and the Portrait Choir
Anonymity - music by Handel and readings: The Portrait Choir, Gregory Batsleer, Donnacadh O'Briain: National Portrait Gallery
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 29 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Handel's music and readings from the First World War set up some wonderful resonances

The Portrait Choir was founded in 2013 and is in residence at the National Portrait Gallery, with the aim of providing visitors with ways to appreciate both portraits and music. Linked to the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of World War I portraits, the choir gave a concert Anonymity with New Century Baroque, conducted by Gregory Batsleer, the choir's artistic director. They gave a number of performances of the programme and I caught the first, on 29 March 2014. The programme directed by Donnacadh O'Briain interleaved Handel's music, mainly from his oratorios, with letters and poems written during World War I. The readings were given by actors Geoffrey Streatfield and Roger Watkins. The concert took place in room 20, so that we were surrounded by portraits from the early 19th century, testimony to another major conflict.


The Portrait Choir consists of both professional and aspiring young singers, each section is led by a profession who mentors the young singers in their section. New Century Baroque is made up of former members of the European Baroque Orchestra and was formed in 2010.


We opened with the Foreign Office's announcement of war in 1914 and throughout the performance the readings and music were interleaved. We had the overture to Judas Maccabaeus performed unconducted, with crisp bounce and nice shapely style; the relatively small band, 17 players, included two theorbos and a harpsichord, so we had a nice strong continuo.

Prime Minister Asquith's address to the House of Commons with its talk of small nations being overpowered felt alarmingly current. It led directly to Go, my faithful soldier go and And draw a blessing down from Handel's Theodora. The baritone solo in Go, my faithful soldier go was nicely vivid with strong words, though the soloist had a touch too much vibrato for my taste and a hint of tension in the top. The chorus was  lively and vibrant with strong words and good passagework.

Siegfried Sassoon's The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still provided a bleak contrast to the previous choruses. The mood continued with O fatal consequence of rage from Saul sung with nice attention to the words, and vibrant but focussed tone. It was a powerful performance and made an interesting dialogue with the Sassoon. Director Donnacadh O'Briain had the chorus performing from different parts of the room at different times during the concert, sometimes they faced us, sometimes they were stood behind us and sometimes they were gathered dramatically in the centre of the room. Not every idea worked but it represented a brave attempt at using the tricky space to best advantage, whilst giving the performance some sort of dramatic shape.

The letters of a 17 year old soldier to his mother were remarkably touching, partly for their sense of business unfinished never to be completed. These followed seamlessly in Lascia Ch'io Pianga from Rinaldo, here a mother lamenting the death of her son. The soprano soloist's performance, sung from memory, was mesmerising and poignant, sung in a lovely rich lyric voice.

Ivor Gurney's strange Ballad of the Tree Spectres was followed by a vividly brisk account of Avert these omens, all ye pow'rs from Semele with some lovely spat out consonants. Further letters, again from humble soldiers, gave a profoundly touching glimpse of the ordinary realities of way. These led to the Elegy from Saul, with some fine solos combined with a well shaped choral contribution.

In what was perhaps the most imaginative touch in the programme combining text and music, Comfort Ye from Messiah was performed with the Beatitudes, with the spoken text mainly over the instrumental portions. This might sound awkward, but proved very powerful and effective especially as the solo tenor gave such a fabulously vibrant performance. So much so, that I rather regretted that we did not go on to Every Valley. Instead we moved to the Dead March from Saul, in a transition which did not quite work.

This lead to a group of modern texts by Tom Haines, George W Bush, Tony Blair, and a letter to Tony Blair from a young soldier. These provided a modern perspective on the subject. The rather downbeat response from the chorus was O terror and astonishment from Semele in a nicely expressive performance.

The final text was Woodrow Wilson's 1918 speech at the conclusion of the war, depressing in its optimism given what we now know. But the final word went to Handel with The Name of the Wicked from Solomon.

The two actors gave fine performances, moving between different characters and allowing us to appreciate the texts.  Batsleer and his performers gave thoroughly involving performances with a lovely combination of solo and choral contributions, not to forget the fine instrumental contributions.

The room was not the most ideal space to perform Handel oratorio in. But I found the combination of text and music brilliantly conceived and very finely executed, and the programme set up some intriguing dialogues and resonances between Handel's music and the 20th century wars.

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