Walking through Borough Market on the way to today’s Prom at Southwark Cathedral it was hard to reconcile the hustle and bustle with the shocking terror attack here only a matter of months ago. So two composers’ responses (separated by 400 years) to biblical texts exploring faith in God in the face of suffering and evil caused pause for contemplation for even this non-believer. Palestrina’s text for Confitebor tibi, Domine, from Isaiah, is of praise and trust in God, despite life’s trials. And of course, The Book of Job, the subject of Judith Weir’s new choral work, is the ultimate test of one man’s faith in the face of the destruction of pretty much everything good in his life.

The BBC Proms come to Southwark Cathedral © BBC | Mark Allan
The BBC Proms come to Southwark Cathedral
© BBC | Mark Allan

But David Hill’s final concert as Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers was also a testament to the power of music to explore the unfathomable, and joined by members of the Nash Ensemble for the world première of Judith Weir’s work, it proved to be an inspiring sanctuary of music-making amidst the busy market activity just feet away outside.

The BBC Singers opened with Palestrina’s motet for five voices, immediately followed by the Missa Confitebor tibi, Domine, drawing on the same melodic material, but this time set for double choir. For both, the choir was arranged in two-choir form, with the tenors, on the outside of the two choirs, almost tucked behind pillars. The acoustic blend was not entirely smooth as a result, the slightly more strident tenor voices cutting through the more evenly blended textures of the other voices. The ringing sopranos blended better, but overall, the choral sound was not as pure as one would like in this repertoire. But perhaps the singers were in a more dramatic frame of mind in readiness for the Weir to follow. 

David Hill conducts the BBC Singers © BBC | Mark Allan
David Hill conducts the BBC Singers
© BBC | Mark Allan

In the Kyrie of the Mass, Hill shaped the rising and falling lines carefully, avoiding the obvious of all rising lines automatically having crescendos. The Gloria was taken at a fair lick, creating a welcome energetic drive. Occasionally tuning on solo entries was surprisingly insecure, and in the Credo, the Crucifixus, one-to-a-part in the first choir, was a little shaky, the voices being quite far apart making an even blend difficult. However, the Hosannas had great energy, again at a lively tempo, with the second beginning quietly, building effectively to a vibrant conclusion. The final Dona nobis pacem in the second Agnus Dei concludes with Palestrina’s unexpected, serene harmonies, and Hill began this with some beautifully soft singing, warming for those final chords.

Weir describes In the Land of Uz as a “dramatised reading” of The Book of Job, and she compiled the text herself from the well-known story of a man’s response to suffering and how to reconcile this with faith in God. Weir uses a spoken narrator (delivered with great clarity here by Charles Gibbs), but achieves variety in telling the story by mixing the spoken narration with echoed words in the chorus, and passing fragments of text between different voices in the choir. The voice of Job is given to a solo tenor, and is often paired with responses from the solo viola (excellently performed here by William Coleman). 

Adrian Thompson performs the world premiere of Judith Weir’s <i>In The Land of Uz</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
Adrian Thompson performs the world premiere of Judith Weir’s In The Land of Uz
© BBC | Mark Allan

Adrian Thompson characterised the role of Job with great presence, combining lyrical lamenting with a convincing sense of resilience despite the trials and tests thrown at him. Breathy hissing from the choir for Satan is a slightly out-of-kilter pantomime gesture, and the deep bass lines for God is a little too obvious, but otherwise, Weir achieves a strong dramatic narrative, exploiting to the full unusual combinations of her chosen instruments. The mournful soprano saxophone (beautifully played by Christian Forshaw) provides contrast to the soulful viola, and double bass (Graham Mitchell) and tuba (Sasha Koushk-Jalali) give occasional underpinning weight. The trumpet is used sparingly, its showpiece being an offstage instrumental duet with the organ, representing a whirlwind in its swirling downward chromatic scales, expertly navigated by Huw Morgan. Apart from this duet, the organ (Stephen Farr) is also used fairly sparingly, elsewhere supporting and interjecting within some of the fuller choral sections.

The BBC Singers were more compactly and centrally placed for this piece, and this time, it was the tuba and saxophone that were slightly tucked out of sight, although, as both instruments carry clearly, this did not create any balance issues. The BBC Singers seemed more comfortable in this more overtly dramatic music, singing with strong conviction throughout. The trio of alto ‘Comforters’ deserve particular mention for their tight and well-blended singing. This was a powerful performance of a highly effective, dramatic piece, with great variety, strong choral writing, and imaginative and unusual use of instruments, and it deserves a regular place in the choral repertoire.