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Disappointing Stars

Bach, Brahms, Poulenc and Martin

Netherlands Chamber Choir

Saturday, March 7

Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

Perhaps more than any other genre, classical music places immense stress on technical perfection. And rightly so: it’s essential to any pleasurable performance, especially given the demands that the greatest classical works place on their performers. But it’s not, by itself, enough.

These thoughts were very much in mind after Saturday night’s Festival of the Arts performance by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, a highly regarded international ensemble led by an equally well-respected conductor, Peter Dijkstra. It was evident that these were technically accomplished, supremely polished and experienced musicians, a tight ensemble with a talented leader.

But I just didn’t find myself at all engaged by the first half of the performance, despite its containing, in Dijkstra’s words, “some of the best choral pieces ever written”: ‘Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Muhseligen?’ and ‘Drei Gesange fur sechsstimmigen Chor’ by Brahms, and Bach’s ‘Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied’. Everything seemed to my ears accurate and carefully thought-out, but there was little sense of passion or connection with the text, nor did I feel moved by any of the singing. Occasional moments aside, such as a particularly golden and delicate sound in the third movement of the first Brahms piece, there was relatively little variety of tone and colour, even across different pieces and composers.

Things picked up after the interval, especially in the performance of Poulenc’s ‘Un Soir de Neige’. This bleak, desolate story of spiritual collapse in winter woods was beautifully conveyed, as if the piece’s immensely vivid image-painting had awakened something in the performers. The wood’s dead branches, the pursuit of the cruel wolf, the ice like shattered mirrors: all were summoned up with colour and clarity.

But I found the last piece, Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, as unconvincing as the first half had been. There were high points: the opening ‘Kyrie eleison’ and the closing ‘Agnus dei’ both featured exceptional control throughout the quiet passages, a control that allowed fine shadings and absolute clarity even when singing pianissimo. But overall the singing once again lacked the intensity and passion that would have made the music come alive. Clearly some in the audience felt differently: at the end there were sporadic attempts at a standing ovation. Sadly, though, there was no way I was joining in.

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