There’s an obvious reason why, when celebrities are cast away on that notorious desert island, the Bible and Shakespeare are already part of the support package. In this intriguingly designed programme given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Edward Gardner, biblical inspiration was the connecting thread.

Edward Gardner conducts the LPO
© Mark Allan

Lili Boulanger would not only have wanted to “rage, rage against the dying of light” at the end of her tragically short life, but also as a devout Catholic to identify with the benedictions which conclude her Psalm 129. In her most autobiographical work, she pours out her anguish and torment at the start, vividly conveyed in this performance by the astringency of the opening wind sonorities, the dark and smouldering quality of the lower strings and then the crepuscular lower voices of the London Philharmonic Choir. Together with the very large orchestral forces involved, including triple woodwind, tuba, two harps and a celesta, this was redolent of biblical epics from the early days of wide-screen and Technicolor cinema. At the close, when upper voices entered in a wordless vocalise, creating a gentle halo of sound, I wanted this magical piece, both intimate and immense, to be a mere prelude to something much greater.

Rage and beatitude provide similar contrasts in Messiaen’s Le Tombeau resplendissant. At the age of 18 the composer lost his mother to consumption. In this work of mourning his own epitaph in the score gives added poignancy, the opening lines of which read: “My youth is dead. I am its executioner.” From the start, with its seething strings and stentorian outbursts from the brass, all Messiaen’s later hallmarks are already evident, with boundless energy and rhythmic inventiveness pre-echoing Turangalîla. Gardner shaped the fast-slow-fast-slow structure with a keen eye for characteristic detail: the languorous flute solo, and then oboe evocative of Le Sacre, in the first slow section, down to the mighty thwacks of the grosse caisse symbolising youth’s exit at the end of each section. Most moving of all was the final slow section for strings alone (minus the double basses), in which pacing and textural clarity were ideal.

Unlike Boulanger and Messiaen, Brahms had no strong faith to support him. Like Messiaen though, he was much troubled by the loss of his mother. In the selection of Luther’s texts that form his German Requiem, the focus is on suffering and consolation rather than judgement and the afterlife. There were two clear highlights in this performance: the baritone of Roderick Williams, rock-steady, with impeccable diction and honeyed tone, and the soprano of Christiane Karg, positioned aloft in front of the organ console, suitably angelic, and soaring effortlessly for “und habe grossen Trost gefunden” in the fifth movement.

Christiane Karg
© Gisea Schenker

Sadly, the choral contribution backed up by the Rodolfus Choir was much less compelling. The lack of tonal blend and balance was a recurring problem. The soprano line was nearly always impressive, but not matched by tenors and basses, especially in the third movement which had little cutting edge. Nor was I persuaded of a full understanding of the text. The sixth movement should bring a dramatic highlight: “Dein Stachel” was far too limp in articulation, with all the emphasis on “Wo” and none on the all-important “Sieg”.

Gardner opted for solace and occasional moments of sunshine in a fairly brisk reading running to 67 minutes. What he underplayed, however, were the moments of drama. The horns remained buried in the second movement, and whenever the text refers to the trombones these just about peeped above the surrounding orchestral textures. Nor were rhythms always ideally crisp. Brahmsian stodge lurked distressingly in the background.