CBSO/Berlin Radio Choir/Halsey/Nelsons at Teatro Auditorio, Cuenca, Spain
Long connected through their shared chorus director Simon Halsey, the CBSO and the Berlin Radio Choir finally came together on stage for the first time in this small but historic Spanish city on Saturday.
In addition to its traditional street processions, since 1962 Cuenca has marked holy week with its Semana de Musica Religiosa, an international festival of religious music.
This year´s major commission was Messages, a 25-minute work for chorus and orchestra by Sutton Coldfield-born Jonathan Harvey, who celebrates his 70th birthday next month.
With a text consisting entirely of the name of 143 angels, mainly Hebrew and Islamic, it is a sensual and ecstatic work with an impressive sense of scale. Textures and sound perspectives shift gradually with a measured sense of purpose. While there is no real sense of recitation, at times the choir surges like the sea or some other force of nature, with some unconventional vocal techniques suggesting the whistling of wind.
Harvey dispenses with violins to create a basically dark orchestral sound, but this is overlaid with washes of metallic glitter from cimbalom, harps, piano, celeste and percussion. While clearly a piece of 21st century music, the sheer elaborateness of texture might recall the Szymanowski of the First World War period.
As it happens, it was a later Szymanowski we heard in the second half of this concert. His Stabat Mater dates from the mid-1920s when his style had become more restrained, and the setting is quite compact – not least when compared to the remarkably expansive version by Haydn heard here two nights earlier.
The CBSO´s recording, for which Halsey prepared the chorus, was an award winner back in the early 1990s. This was a performance to fully remind us what beautiful music this is, Halsey perfectly blending his Anglo-German forces in the cause of Polish expressiveness.
The only thing to regret about this concert, which opened with Gerald Finzi´s radiant Dies Natalissung by the Irish soprano Ailish Tynan (outstanding in the Szymanowski), was the size of the audience, which only two-thirds filled a small concert hall with a capacity of less than 800.
On the other hand, every concert during the festival was either broadcast live or recorded for future broadcast by Spanish radio, so the audience was much larger than was apparent in the hall.
Neither of the programmes the CBSO brought to the festival were obvious crowd-pleasers. On Friday music drector Andris Nelsons was in charge for a re-run of a challenging programme which drew a five-star review from my colleague Christopher Morley when it was played at Symphony Hall recently.
Though it fared better than the Harvey concert, it drew a smaller audience than the Handel and Haydn which were performed here earlier in the week.
Taking the week´s music-making to an entirely different scale, Nelsons presented two large and completely different orchestras for a first half consisting of Schoenberg´s Verklate Nacht for strings and Messiaen´s Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorumfor winds and percussion.
They came together for a wonderfully involving account of Strauss´s Death and Transfigurationwhich clinched a successful Cuenco debut.
All three works were overwhelming in their various ways, yet with the encore – the prelude to Act 3 of Wagner´s Lohengrin – Nelsons still somehow managed to take the performance level up another notch.
Look out for a concert perfomance of Lohengrin at Symphony Hall next season, just before Nelsons conducts it at Bayreuth.