On paper, a programme of choral works by English composers, all composed over 100 years ago, under the title ‘The Sense of an Ending’, coupled with a newly commissioned, confidently contemporary piece from singer-songwriter Laura Mvula shouldn’t have worked. However, it is testament to Mvula’s inventive creativity, and her clear understanding of choral singing, combined with the versatility of the BBC Singers, under the direction of Sakari Oramo, that this Prom at Cadogan Hall definitely ‘worked’. More choral compositions from Mvula must surely follow.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

Their programme began with an early setting of Shelley’s Music, when soft voices die by Frank Bridge. It begins softly, but the harmonies slowly warm to a climax, with the BBC Singers sopranos ringing out at the top of the texture here. In contrast, the piece dies away to a final 'slumber', with the basses showing off their rich deep registers. Next, a Christina Rossetti setting from Vaughan Williams, Rest, again starting quietly and building to a climax at “Paradise”. Oramo conducted with big gestures, shaping the dynamics and flow of the text with confidence. Holst’s setting of the Nunc dimittis followed, and here Holst builds up an opening chord with successive entries. One or two were a little tentative, but once all in place, the BBC Singers produced a rich blend. The two solo lines, whilst strong, might have been better matched in terms of tone, with the soprano solo producing a pure tone, followed by a more vibrato-laden sound from the tenor. When the full choral forces arrived at the word “Israel”, the first big forte of the concert, the impact was impressive, and the final Amen rang out powerfully.

Mvula grew up singing in gospel choirs and chamber groups (as well as the CBSO Youth Chorus, as Oramo informed us), and this experience is evident in how she writes for choral forces. Love Like a Lion uses text by Ben Okri, and explores different aspects of love, from childlike awe and obsession, through angry and painful break-up, to the strength and joy love can bring. In three short movements, Mvula draws on a variety of styles, yet combining them in a skilfully coherent way. The opening movement combines simple lines, passed around the voices, with rich underpinning harmonies. The middle movement opens mysteriously with pulsing wordless rhythms progressing gradually into the text. Mvula cleverly subverts things here, setting a solo soprano line (excellently performed here – soloists sadly not singled out in the programme credits) worthy of a spiritual for the words “I don’t want him back!”. The chanting final section dies away effectively, before the final movement takes over with gospel-infused enthusiasm and dancing rhythms. 

Parry’s Songs of Farewell made up the second half of the programme here. These six varied settings of diverse texts, all composed just a few years before Parry’s death (although one is a revised version of a slightly earlier work), reek of late contemplation, soul-searching and facing the final curtain. Parry was not a well man by this stage, and must have been aware that his end was approaching. Yet there are a range of emotions here, including moments of powerful belief and confidence. Parry begins with four-part settings, but from the third piece onwards he adds an additional voice, so that the final song, Lord, let me know mine end, a setting of part of Psalm 39, is a rich double-choir tour de force.

Oramo kept things moving through the frequent changes of metre and the flowing text in My Soul, there is a country, and elicited a great ringing sound from the singers on the final three chords. The second, I know my soul…, is a relatively straightforward, mostly homophonic setting, and the interest here is in the dynamics, which Oramo shaped sensitively. With the arrival of the first additional line for second sopranos, there were a few wavering moments, one or two stray consonants and a blend that slightly obscured the middle parts. In There is an old belief, balance and blend improved, and the build to the final chord was strong. Taking a note for the next piece exposed a tiny drop in pitch, but the complexity of Parry’s setting of Donne’s text in At the round earth’s imagined corners, and the BBC Singers agility in the winding lines and frantic entries was impressive. In the final Psalm setting, Parry exploits double choir effects, as well as contrast male and female voices, and his fugal setting of “take thy plague away” was tackled with great precision here. Oramo and the singers also captured the plea of the final phrases, making this a highly moving conclusion to the set and to their concert.

****1