Saturday night, late October, and there’s a chill in the air, and it’s not all down to weather! Brexit dramas, political deadlock, dire economic and climatic warnings have filled the day. I’m relieved to put those eerily dark streets off Sloane street behind me, and to step into the warmly lit Cadogan Hall.
I’ve come to see Pietà, a choral work by Richard Blackford, which is getting its London premiere tonight. I do enjoy choral music; a Handel, Verdi or Mozart Requiem will set off the Christmas season nicely, provided the choir is polished and the work is performed in a warm, comfortable venue (all of which I was expecting to get this evening). I have spent too many Christmases shivering in churches, listening to, or singing the same works for my own choir!
Having interviewed Blackford prior to the performance, I was very much looking forward to seeing Pietà performed live. I knew that the composer had used the traditional Stabat Mater hymn as his starting point.To the hymn for the grieving Mary, whose son has been crucified on the Cross, Blackford added poems by the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova wrote them in a state of heightened anxiety, when she thought she had lost her own son to the KGB during the Stalin purges. Introducing this new element, Blackford hoped to bring audiences closer to the subject. Akhmatova was an ordinary mother after all – one with which the audience could easily identify and empathise with. See my interview here: Pietà Premieres in London: Interview with composer Richard Blackford.
In the audience at the Cadogan, I watched a choir of one hundred and ten singers walk out on stage with thirty-six violin, viola and cello musicians. Members of the children’s choir were already in position in the the dress circle. Mezzo soprano, Catherine Wyn Rogers, appeared last with baritone, Huw Montague Rendall. Reigning above them all, in her own gallery above the stage, stood soprano saxophonist, Amy Dickson, in a resplendent gold dress. Together with conductor Gavin Carr, they all formed a perfect tableau.
For the opening prelude, the strings, and the cello theme set the mournful tone. The strings playing in their extreme upper register ratcheted up the tension. The choir entered with a hushed pianissimo before crescendoing slowly and inexorably.“Through her weeping soul…./A sword passed”, they sang, expressing Mary’s visceral pain as she watches her son’s crucifixion. Lines like these are not forgotten in a hurry.
As you may have gathered by now, Blackford’s composition is not your usual slow and contemplative Stabat Mater, as you might get with Pergolesi for instance.
The second movement with its rocking string rhythm, over which Amy Dickson’s soprano sax rode so hauntingly, took my breath away. Blackford’s use of the soprano saxophone in an obligato role, was a stroke of genius. Dickson’s instrument is pivotal in the work. One minute accompanying the strings and establishing a dialogue with them; the next echoing the emotions of the mezzo soprano. At key moments, Dickson’s instrument follows its own serene path, riding high above the drama taking place around her. Her melodies full of pathos are most memorable in the final two movements.
At the concert I was also struck by how well Blackford writes for singers. He chooses them well too. Tonight Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ mezzo voice suited Akhmatova’s anxiety-ridden, ‘Weeks fly swiftly by’. The syncopated rhythms were not easy, however Wyn-Rogers executed them perfectly. Huw Montague Rendall’s baritone conjoined well with Wyn-Rogers’ burnished tones in the tender duet in Fact me mecum pie flere – I would have liked more duets but I’m betraying my love of opera here!
Most impressive was the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. Having already performed the work at the Lighthouse, Poole, the BSC was by now a slick operation. Most memorable was the a cappella piece in Akhmatova’s poem A Chorus of Angels Sang. I closed my eyes and the chorus’s melded voices transported me back to Easter Mass at the Russian Orthodox Church in la Rue Daru, Paris, where my Georgian grandmother used to take us as children. My mother, accompanying me on the night, told me that she had had the same reaction and had shed several tears.
Russian Orthodox Church, la rue Daru, Paris.
With Pietà Blackford has produced a work of tremendous passion, drama and tenderness. The children’s choral interlude was a complete joy to listen to. So poignant though as well, as images of snow, Christmas and of war-torn territories and motherless children, crowded my mind. This was no accident, the composer intended it this way.
Conductor, Gavin Carr was magnificent on the night. He had a job on his hands: two choirs in different spaces, string orchestra at his feet, soprano sax up above in the gallery, two new soloists who had probably only had one rehearsal as is usually the case. And Carr engaged all the performers with expert precision. I felt that every single musician and singer in the room had the utmost respect for him and the work. Furthermore they loved what they were performing.
This is an exciting work to see live and to perform as a choir. Highly recommended.
A recording of Pietà is available on Nimbus Records, featuring the original soloists from the premiere at The Lighthouse, Poole, the extraordinary mezzo, Jennifer Johnston (Bayerische Staatsoper) and the much in demand on the opera circuit, baritone, Stephen Gadd. Also available for Download and Streaming.
Composer Richard Blackford received an Ivor Novello Award for choral music for Pietà in 2020.
For choirs: Study Score, Vocal Score and Orchestral Parts are available to purchase and hire from Nimbus Music Publishing.
My interview with Richard Blackford :