Monday 27 March 2017

Mozart and Haydn. City of London Choir, Leon McCawley and the RPO at Cadogan Hall,

City of London Choir (Photo Filip Gierlinski)
City of London Choir (Photo Filip Gierlinski)
Mozart Piano Concerto in C minor K491, Haydn Theresienmesse in B flat Hob XXII:12; Leon McCawley, Grace Davidson, Catherine Carby, Nick Pritchard, Tristan Hambleton, City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Hilary Davan Wetton; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Mar 23 2017
Star rating: 3.0

Well-disciplined but angry Mozart and Haydn

For the City of London Choir, a programme of Mozart and Haydn represents an earlier offering than their usual big nineteenth- and twentieth-century choral standards. Though they lived up to their reputation for being well drilled and well balanced, this concert on 23 March 2017 at the Cadogan Hall demonstrated that they are more at home in the big, beefy fare than the cool, classical repertoire. Hilary Davan Wetton conducted the choir, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) in Mozart's Tantum Ergo and Piano Concerto in C minor K491 (with soloist Leon McCawley), and Haydn's Theresienmesse in B flat Hob XXII:12 with soloists Grace Davidson, Catherine Carby, Nick Pritchard and Tristan Hambleton.

In the interests of disclosure I should point out that I had been to the wonderful Classical Opera concert of Mozart’s first stage work at St John’s Smith Square two nights earlier (their second performance sadly cancelled because of the atrocity in Westminster), and my ears were still full of the wonderful airy sound Ian Page got from his band and singers. And so hearing the Thursday concert at modern pitch with the RPO felt a bit of a shock. But then, reading the City of London Choir’s mission statement and eavesdropping on the enthusiastic audience members, I realised that my neighbours were not hard-core concert goers, and they had different expectations.

The programme began with a miniature attributed to the young Mozart but more likely to be an arrangement by him of a setting of the Eucharistic hymn by the otherwise unknown Johann Zach (1699-1773). Tantum Ergo allowed the choir to showcase their discipline and good, clear diction. It was a pretty piece with a soprano solo and a few bars that foreshadowed an ensemble from a Da Ponte opera.

I am not sure if a conductor was required for the C minor piano concerto. Of course the piece is known for its drama, and we had that in spades, but there was not nearly enough light and shade for my taste. The mood was heading rather more in the direction of Beethoven than Mozart, though there was some fine chamber-music playing and moments of cheekiness from Leon McCawley in the second and third movements.

After the interval we were back with the choir and Haydn’s mass written in honour of Princess Maria Theresa, consort of the Emperor Francis II. This was no rustic, outdoorsy Esterházy piece but a pompous imperial concoction and Davan Wetton’s reading of it felt too angry – particularly in the ‘Benedictus’. Dynamics ranged from mezzo forte to fortissimo and, while clearly great fun for the choir to sing, it wasn’t really Haydn. The soloists gave the impression they had not rehearsed together and they were not well-matched: the mezzo Catherine Carby had presence and the voice to cut through the orchestra, but the other three were consort singers. Nothing wrong with that, if we had had a lighter sound from the orchestra, but they were unfortunately responding to Davan Wetton’s forceful downbeat and (it has to be said) inordinately long baton – more intended for a large choral society than a group of pros like the RPO. I felt that I was witnessing the results of a long-term relationship Wetton has built up with the City of London Choir, but this didn’t translate to the band, making for a rather unsubtle evening.

But this was An Event. Band, conductor and pianist in tails. The audience loved it, and in that respect the choir certainly achieved its stated aims of nurturing “a love and understanding of music among its members and audiences”.

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