Friday 5 April 2013

Tenebrae sings Will Todd - Choral at Cadogan

The chamber choir Tenebrae directed by Nigel Short made their appearance in the Choral at Cadogan series at the Cadogan Hall on 5 April 2013 accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra in a programme which  celebrated the music of Will Todd. Todd's music was performed with a pair of works, selected by Todd, which reflected his influences: Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Elgar's part-song There is sweet music.

Though the concert was centred round the composer Will Todd, anyone unfamiliar with his work had to rely solely on a forward by him in the programme without a full biography to illuminate you further. I have to admit that this was the first time I was hearing any of Todd's music live.

In the forward Todd talked of his being excited by Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and of their folk/jazz energy. Tenebrae performed them in the version for harp, percussion and organ, which meant of course relying on an electronic organ, the Cadogan Hall not having one of its own.  The organ sound was acceptable, but by no means completely convincing and it had that slightly dead quality which some electronic organs can have, not helped of course by the Cadogan Hall acoustic. The performance of Chichester Psalms was generally rather proper and correct. Only sporadically did Short and the choir generate the sort of energy and enthusiasm that the work needs, and the whole performance felt a little score-bound. 

The men's opening entry in the first movement was very under-powered, the women had a nice bright focussed sound but the whole movement took some time to develop, and it was all a bit po-faced. Bernstein might have written the piece for English cathedral usage, but the material is based on fragments from his Broadway work and any performance needs to acknowledge this cross-over. The solo in the second movement was taken by counter-tenor David Allsop. Not the boy treble, which I prefer, but Allsop sang beautifully with a fine, controlled sense of line. The men's interruption with Lamah rag'shu goyim was brilliantly crisp and brisk with a nice edge to it. The final movement was performed with a nice sense of line and lovely tone, but was a bit understated and lacked swing. It reflected the general performance, beautifully sung but rather correct and understated.

The first Will Todd piece followed, The Lord is my Shepherd, accompanied by strings and harp. This is a movement from Todd's Te Deum of 2009 (a further movement from the Te Deum was sung in the second half). Todd's setting of the Te Deum mixes the Latin text with other texts, though this was not explained in the programme so one might have puzzled at where a setting of the 23rd Psalm fitted into things. It was originally sung by children's chorus and is a attractive, melodic piece which acquired some rhythmic interest in the middle section.

Next came Elgar's lovely part-song, There is Sweet Music, which is a setting of words by Tennyson and shows Elgar experimenting as the women's parts are in a different key to the men's. Elgar uses this harmonic tension to create some magical effects, and Tenebrae's performance was beautifully done, though I found the men perhaps a little too rugged with not enough bloom on their tone.

The final item in the first half was another piece of Will Todd, this time Stay with me Lord for choir, strings and harp. The work sets words by Padre Pio, in an English version by Todd's regular collaborator Ben Dunwell and was premiered in 2008 by the Sixteen, in a version for choir and piano. It starts with a lovely melodic line for the women, finely sung with clear tone, around which the work develops. Todd's style in these pieces was generally melody based, with harmonic and rhythmic interest moving around the basic melody line. The piece had some very affecting moments.

The second half consisted of five of Todd's pieces, so this means that I need to address a fundamental problem. There are times when a critic finds himself out of sympathy with the music being performed. What to do? I could simply say that Todd's music is lyrical, attractive and personable. Or I could say that his default position seems to be to write music so blandly accessible that is veers dangerously close to easy listening and had my companion making comments about music for TV adverts. The former is true to an extent, the latter a value judgement which did rather reflect my thoughts during the concert.

The second half opened with Todd's 2006 piece, Among Angels setting a short text by Ben Dunwell. Here Todd placed a series of rather sinuous melodies against some fascinating choral textures, including glissandi and murmuring. That we may love again comes from the 2009 Te Deum and sets a text by Ben Dunwell, a plea for forgiveness from the horrors of war. There were some lovely moments, with some fascinating textures and I particularly loved the way he introduced a bass drum. But for me, Todd's  melodic response, plangently pleasing though it was, did not get to the heart of the text. Here I must also address another aspect of the performance, that of diction. The choir's diction was not always clear, Short and the singers seemed to be rather more concerned with beauties of line and tone so that words in the English pieces were only patchily audible, which was a great shame.

Todd's setting of the Latin text Vidi Speciosam (from the Song of Songs), was written in 2012 and is for unaccompanied choir. Here, though his writing is still recognisably his own, his harmonic language approached that of the popular American choral composers Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre. Tenebrae were fully at home here and the choral textures were quite simply ravishing.

The earliest of Todd's pieces in the programme was the rather effective little miniature Man unkind, words by Ben Dunwell, from their 1996 oratorio St. Cuthbert which was first performed at Durham Cathedral. The final work in the programme was the newest, dating from 2013, Blessed Art Thou. Here, after a rapturous opening, we finally had some lively, up-tempo music to send us on our way.

As an encore, Tenebrae performed a lovely little unaccompanied piece by Todd, My Lord has come, a carol from 2011.

Todd is undoubtedly a highly gifted melodist and every piece in the programme had an attractive melodic line, but his style seemed to be too eager to please and too lacking in dramatic edge and danger for my own tastes. But I have to confess that I seemed to be in the minority and the music received an enthusiastic response from both audience and choir. I also thought that there was a little too much of Todd's music in the concert and that the second half would have benefited from the omission of two pieces and their replacement by contrasting material.

Whilst the Bernstein which opened the concert seemed a little too correct, the performances of Todd's music from Tenebrae and the English Chamber Orchestra were superb. Todd's music relies for its effect very much on the upper voices being able to sustain his lovely melodic lines, and Tenebrae did this to perfection. The choir clearly relished Todd's music and produced some ravishing choral textures.

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