This was an interestingly paired concert: It’s hard to think of two more contrasting pieces than Jennifer Walshe’s The Site of An Investigation and Brahms’s German Requiem.
Walshe is an Irish composer born in 1974 and her twelve section, 33 minute piece is a mixed-genre hybrid which sits somewhere between a concerto and a play with music. For this London premiere Walshe herself was the soloist – starting dramatically, with hand held mic standing behind the brass, moving to the middle of the percussion and finally coming down stage next to the conductor to the traditional soloist spot.
She speaks to the music and sings: sometimes with silvery lyricism and sometimes with strident forcefulness. She ruminates – with passion, wistfulness and occasionally humour – on the state of the world. So we are led to think about what we’re here for, ocean pollution, the pointless arrogance of the space race and the absurdity of AI-induced “eternal” (sort of) life, among many other things.
The orchestral colour in her composition is striking. The large orchestra gives us, for instance, some lovely discordant trombone glissandi, percussive harp, glorious woodwind detail and a couple of passages in which the whole brass section are required to shout “Break over them like the sea…” at angry fortissimo. There’s never a dull moment for the percussion section either. As well as playing a wide range of relatively conventional instruments they are required to pop bubble wrap, swirl coloured streamers and built a pyramid from plastic storage boxes which they then knock down. I struggle, it has to be said, to see the point of placing a four foot high model of a giraffe on a plinth and then noisily wrapping it in crinkly paper.
And so, after the interval, to the glorious familiarity of Brahms and his very personal take on the concept of a requiem – lots of Lutheran Bible, no Latin and no Christ.
The National Youth Choir of Great Britain makes a strong, energetic sound carefully managed by Ilan Volkov from the podium. It’s good to see so many fine tenors and basses with plenty of diversity and, of course, because this is a youth choir they are well able to stand throughout the work, thus precluding the need for tiresome bobbing up and down.
Bass baritone Shenyang brings terrific warmth to Herr, lehre doch mich and I really liked the pointing up of the fugue at the end of the movement. And soprano Elena Tsallagova sings with great sensitivity in Ihr habt nun Trauigkeit especially in rapport with flute.
But, for me, the best bit of this enjoyable performance was the choral singing. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen is very well known as a standalone but this time, sung with explemplary tenderess, it sounded as fresh as if one had never heard it before. Similarly there was admirable drive in Denn wir haben and real minor key menace in Denn alles Fleisch especially in the fortissimo recapitulation.