The so-called Psalms of David (the authorship is, in truth, uncertain) are perhaps the oldest singing texts still to survive in common use. And though their natural home is liturgy, they turn up in concert too – as they did last week in fiercely contrasted settings by Bernstein and Stravinsky at the Festival Hall, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.
Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was commissioned in 1930 to celebrate a big orchestral anniversary, and the psalms it chooses have a celebratory element exemplified by Nos 40 (He hath put a new song in my mouth) and 150 (Praise God in his sanctuary). But Stravinsky doesn’t do balloons and cake. His settings have a darkly glamorous austerity, partly achieved through a distinctive, bottom-heavy orchestration (with no violins or violas in the strings, and woodwind-focused textures), partly through delivering the texts in Vulgate Latin.
Musically, the treatment owes a lot to the composer’s reclamation of the Russian Orthodoxy of his childhood: having turned back to the faith, he stayed devout. And though the piece is neither long nor old, it feels immense and timeless, with a solemn spiritual charge that in the right hands can be powerful but in the wrong ones plodding.
Thierry Fischer’s hands, conducting, weren’t ideal: the music dragged. But things picked up in Bernstein’s brazen, Broadway-bold Chichester Psalms: a piece that proclaims the cultural history of its texts (as well as the composer’s own Jewish background) by using their original Hebrew, but then totally subverts the mood and colour of Old Testament poetry by setting it to what sound like (and sometimes are) outtakes from West Side Story. It isn’t subtle but it works – in music that’s distinctly of its time (mid-1960s), schmalzy, but entirely loveable. Especially when the treble soloist required for the central, spotlit setting of Psalm 23 does as well as the young William Davies, who sang it here with unaffected but affecting candour.
There are pros and cons to doing Bach’s St Matthew Passion without a conductor, and they were both apparent from last week’s conductor-less account at the Festival Hall by the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment. At times it undervalued drive and pace. But when there’s no one to direct, performers have to watch and listen to each other like participants in chamber music; and the OAE did just that, with intuitive responsiveness. It felt like music-making among friends who understood each other perfectly, and all of equal status. Soloists like Roderick Williams and Mark Padmore stepped out of the chorus and returned to it with eloquence and grace: a true collaborative effort, and the most humane of readings.
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