Royal Festival Hall
Brahms: Schicksalslied, op.54
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, op.54
Mozart: Mass in C minor, KV 427/417a
Nico de Villiers (piano)
Elin Manahan Thomas, Helen Meyerhoff (sopranos)
Peter Davoren (tenor)
Philip Tebb (bass)
Lewisham Choral Society
London Mozart Players
Dan Ludford-Thomas (conductor)
A strange concert, this, in that, although chorally conceived, it proved strongest in the performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto: not so much a comment on the choral singing as on the conducting of Dan Ludford-Thomas. That might seem odd, given that he proved himself very much a choral rather than an orchestral conductor, but the concerto came off best precisely because control of its direction was for the most part in the more than capable hands of pianist, Nico de Villiers. There was no doubt whatsoever that he was the real thing, offering playing both pellucid and, where required, weighty (making me keen to hear his Brahms). Insofar as he was able to lead the London Mozart Players, he did, with all the give and take of chamber music. The shaping of the first-movement cadenza offered a conspectus of that movement, even the work, as a whole. A lovely blend of ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’ was similarly achieved in the Intermezzo, also benefiting from fine cello playing (though a few more cellos and indeed strings more generally would have been welcome). Finely sprung rhythms characterised a finale both buoyant and directed, the LMP on noticeably better form throughout the concerto than in the choral works by Brahms and Mozart that surrounded it.
First of those was Brahms’s Schicksalslied, or ‘Song of Destiny’. Again, one would ideally have had a larger orchestra, not least given the presence of two very large choruses, the Hackney Singers and Lewisham Choral Society, but there were doubtless financial reasons for that. Ludford-Thomas certainly handled those gigantic, Gurrelieder-like choral forces well here. They offered a pleasing sound and excellent diction, clearly well trained, with convincing dynamic contrasts. The final stanza proved hard driven, though, and the orchestra was largely left to fend for itself – sometimes with more convincing results than others.
The second half of the concert was given over to Mozart’s Mass in C minor. The ‘Kyrie’ offered a largely promising start. Swift, if not unreasonably so, and well balanced – again, given the mismatch in size between choruses and orchestras – it once again offered fine choral singing, and a nice change to hear so many voices in Mozart. Alas, soprano, Elin Manahan Thomas proved parted here and elsewhere, also contributing decidedly peculiar Latin pronunciation and ornamentation. If there was nothing especially insightful to Ludford-Thomas’s conducting of the ‘Gloria’, it enabled the chorus, which was a good part of the point of such a concert. Helen Meyerhoff, in its ‘Laudamus’ section proved a more convincing soloist, a bizarrely fast tempo notwithstanding. Subsequent sections sounded more like rushes to the bus stop than moments of Rococo wonder and suffered from poor blend between soloists. By the time we reached the ‘Qui tollis’, choral intonation left a good deal to be desired. However, the teenor, Peter Davoren had some good moments.
Maybe the novelty of such large choral forces had simply worn off, or maybe they were growing tired: either way, the ‘Credo’ seemed more affected by roughness around the edges than had been the case earlier. The ‘Et incarnatus est’, which should be one of the most wondrous movements in all Mozart’s sacred music, suffered from uneven singing, plain strings, and serious disjuncture in pitch between the two; only the woodwind redeemed it. A plain ‘Sanctus’, lumbering ‘Osanna’ and perfunctory ‘Benedictus’ made for dispiriting listening.