From The Daily Telegraph - "Ivan Hewett
reviews the Holst Singers at Temple Church, EC4"
It was a programme of vaulting ambition from the Holst
Singers: five of Anton Bruckner's fervent sacred choral pieces, followed
by a no less intense setting of Biblical texts from his contemporary Johannes
Brahms. And, to end with, a contemporary setting of the tremendous Latin
Requiem, which arouses a thrill of awe in even the most stubborn unbeliever.
Such a programme could fall flat. It's not easy to launch an audience
off on such a high pitch of intensity and hold them there for nearly two
hours. But the Holst Singers brought it off wonderfully.
The choir is not large, but the sound they make is immense, with each
chord given a resonant afterglow by the soaring spaces of the Temple Church.
The immensity isn't just a matter of power, it's to do with total focus
The fervent chromaticisms of Bruckner's Christus Factus Est were unerringly
in tune, as were the winding, penitential lines of Brahms's great and
rarely heard motet Warum ist das Licht gegeben (Job's agonised question
"Why are we born to see the light?"). What made the experience
so overwhelming was the vast tonal palette of the singing, ranging from
a splendour that made the very stones ring down to the most intimate detail.
Controlling all this were the unerring, expressive hands of conductor
Stephen Layton, who is surely one of the finest musicians we have. Nothing
escapes his attention, but the attention to tiny details never comes over
as prissy, because Layton always has the bigger picture in mind.
The final piece was the most taxing of all. Schnittke's Requiem expresses
spiritual deracination by the most extreme means, with the choir's tormented
vocal lines set in stark, grindingly dissonant opposition to the supporting
percussion, organ and brass.
But the problems aren't just technical. Schnittke aptly describes his
music as "polystylist", and there were moments of sub-Carmina
Burana and sub-Stravinsky that made my toes curl. But, with the telling
simplicities of the Benedictus, the piece miraculously redeemed itself,
and by the end I thought I'd heard a masterpiece.
That enigmatic closing chord also marked the end of a journey, from the
radiant certainties of Bruckner through the hard-won consolation of Brahms
to the thoroughly modern anguish of Schnittke, who needs faith but cannot
It was a rare instance of sublime music-making opening the door to a profundity
that was more than musical.
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