In the run-up to Christmas, why should choral singing only be about joy and exultation? Through the power of human voices to express emotion, it’s worth keeping in mind that there are also darker sides of human existence that many experience during the festive season: bereavement, loneliness and homelessness. That made the twin banner of Sorrow and Serenity for this concert given by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Simon Rattle especially apt.

The London Symphony Chorus
© LSO | Andy Paradise

The sorrow came in the first half with Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater. Rattle has lived with this work for quite some time: he first performed it back in 1980; his recording dates from 1993. His tempi this time were a little more expansive, exploring backward references to the Second Viennese School at the outset, the delicate filigree orchestration in the third movement and the rich chromaticism of the string writing in the fifth. It helped that the 100 or so voices of the London Symphony Chorus had clearly been very well prepared by Simon Halsey, singing in the difficult idiom of the Polish language, doing full justice to the imploring quality of the second movement, the hymn-like nature of the a cappella fourth and exulting in the powerful climax of the fifth. In a fine gesture, the three soloists turned to face the chorus for the final words of the concluding movement, joining them in the entreaty, “When my body dies, let my soul be granted the glory of Paradise”.

Iwona Sobotka
© LSO | Andy Paradise

It also helped that the two female soloists were Polish. Iwona Sobotka has a big, operatic voice with a touch of authenticity that only Slav singers command when singing in the vernacular, a passionate soulfulness and fervour. Equally impressive was the mezzo-soprano of Hanna Hipp, whose wonderfully deep and expressive chest tones were a feature of the middle movements and who created a rich earthiness in her duetting with Sobotka. The bass-baritone of Florian Boesch revelled in his dramatic moments, though here, as later in the main work, a slight huskiness tempered clear enunciation.

Vocal qualities that persuade in one work may not always have the ring of conviction in another. In Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem the soprano soloist has little to do, appearing only in the fifth movement where her role is to provide consolation: “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you”. Though suitably angelic at the start, Sobotka soon showed her operatic side. Where purity and restraint should predominate, there was just a touch of coarseness in her wide vibrato and big sound. Boesch, however, was in his element, quite the Old Testament prophet, showing a degree of defiance and menace as he sang “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” in the sixth movement.

Florian Boesch
© LSO | Andy Paradise

The real revelation in this work was Rattle himself. Coming in at a mere 62 minutes and knocking five minutes off the length of his recorded version, this was a beautifully paced and highly expressive reading, giving the lie to the naysayers who frequently chime in with George Bernard Shaw’s disdainful comment that this is a work “patiently borne only by the corpse”. This performance was full of life and sensitivity. From the first hushed pianissimo at the start, the London Symphony Chorus were alive to all the conductor’s demands, firm in attack, thrilling in sound, radiant where required and generous in the solace they offered. 

The instrumental details were equally compelling. Rattle gave special prominence to the three harps: whenever they played in conjunction with the superlative woodwind soloists, it was like the glittering of lots of fairy lights on a Christmas tree.