Alongside the BBC Singers and Chief Conductor Sofi Jeannin’s performance of movements from Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, their Artist-in-Association, Abel Selaocoe offered his own Music of African twilight as a counterpointWith reflections on folk songs and improvisations, he combined highly virtuosic cello playing and singing, also drawing on the BBC Singers vocally and percussively. There were, in effect, two concerts here, both incredibly strong performances in their own right, but not necessarily always complementing one another as might have been intended.

Abel Selaocoe
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The Rachmaminov is full of extremes of register and sustained lines – a perfect platform for the BBC Singers to demonstrate their unquestionable professional expertise and choral virtuosity. Omitting just five of the fifteen movements here, but with considerable additional demands from Selaocoe’s accompanying pieces, they had little rest over nearly two hours of performance, with no interval. Right from the flowing tempo set by Jeannin in Priidite, poklonimsya (Come let us worship), and the smooth blend of voices, equally nimble at the climax, this was a commanding performance. 

Strong tenor solos from Peter Davoren and Benjamin Durrant were matched by secure and rich blend in all voice parts. Rachmaninov rather unkindly puts the longest and most challenging movement, Slava v vyshnikh Bogu, the Great Doxology at number 12 (with three more high, sustained movements to come), ending with surging textures and a final swirling dance at its climax. The altos projected their melody out over pianissimo split tenors, and energy was sustained through the movement’s long build, Jeannin securing the dynamic shape, returning to quiet after each surge. 

In place of the 13th movement, Selaocoe gave us a lively round of call-and-response, including the audience, before calming things down with some incredibly quiet singing over soft choral harmonies from the singers, dying away to nothing. This was one occasion where the transition back into Rachmaninov worked well, with the glorious rising tenor line of Voskres iz groba (Thou hast risen from the tomb) picking up beautifully from where Selaocoe’s moving elegy had left us. Elsewhere, the stark contrast of styles slightly jarred, but not here.

In contrast to the Rachmaninov, where we had texts and brief background, there was little to go on with Selaocoe’s contributions. He is an incredible presence on the stage, and there was clearly so much in the words, delivered with strong emotion. From plaintive cries to sudden explosions of anger, alongside passionately recitative-like passages of enchanting poetry, it would have been great to know more about the texts. However, his energy was infectious, and the variety of vocal tones produced was astonishing, from low growls and overtones to floating high lines. At one point, it was if he was embodying two separate characters, flipping back and forth from a dark raspy, even threatening voice to an ethereal high register. 

And as for the cello, there was drumming, breathy harmonics, scratching, scraping and even modifications to the strings to mimic the kora. Yet he could also give us lyricism and expression, as was demonstrated when they reprised Nïne otpushchayeshi (Now Lettest Thou) to end the concert, Selaocoe taking over the tenor solo. The BBC Singers rose to his demands, with secure choral backing, but also clapping, stomping and even a little dancing (even if the latter didn’t appear entirely natural to them all). 

The energetic spirit of the evening could not be denied, and both ‘halves’ were highly impressive. Only a pity then that such a strong Rachmaninov performance was inevitably overshadowed by the whirlwind of virtuosity that is Abel Selaocoe.