RTÉ Philharmonic Choir

RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra presents ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding: Stanford, Elgar and Coleridge-Taylor’ at the National Concert Hall’ on Friday 16 May 2014

Ever mindful of Dublin’s evolving musical palate, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, in collaboration with the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, presents us with an exciting choral treat in the form of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘Song to the Soul’, Op. 97b. Edited by Professor Jeremy Dibble, the score receives its world premiere, nearly one hundred years after it was composed.

Based on Walt Whitman’s poems ‘Darkest Thou Now, Oh Soul’, and ‘Joy, Shipmate, Joy!’ the short, yet simple, text is beautifully executed by choir and orchestra alike. The languid descending string opening brings to mind a fragrance of Brahms’s Requiem, while the repetitive use of a three-note ascending and descending motif becomes a little tiresome at times. The text is orchestrated quite sensibly with no surprises beyond the odd tutti rush and timpani roll at dramatic interjections in lines such as ‘that inaccessible land’; and ‘then we burst forth!’ Clichéd musical imagery abounds throughout. This is particularly manifest in the suggestion of heavenly bodies through glissandi harp, and the use of the horn to herald in the phrase ‘Joy, Shipmate, Joy’! Notwithstanding such musical foibles, the choral work was quite enjoyable and well received by the audience. Respectful applause was directed towards Professor Dibble in the auditorium for ushering ‘Song to the Soul’ into the choral repertoire.

Alongside Stanford’s contribution to composition and pedagogy, was his promotion of the music of Edward Elgar, whose Enigma Variations, Op. 36, has enchanted listeners since its composition in 1899.

A serene hush descends upon the audience as the haunting strings melody of the opening theme sweeps the auditorium. Built upon an unassuming four-note motif, the NSO, under David Hill, takes us through 14 beautifully written variations depictive of various characters from Elgar’s personal and musical lives. The most famous of all the variations, the breathtaking ‘Nimrod’, (based on the publisher August. J. Jaeger) envelops the audience with its arching melody and heart-wrenching harmonies. Touches of Tchaikovsky in the string-writing shine through as the variation reaches its pleading climax. After this stirring performance the orchestra momentarily collects itself before ushering us through the final 5 variations. Notable solo efforts from Adèle Johnson (viola) and Martin Johnson (cello) were enthusiastically and deservedly acknowledged at the end of the performance.

The finale of the night’s entertainment fell to the Anglo/African composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose cantata ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ from The Song of Hiawatha, Op. 30, received its debut in 1898 under the baton of Stanford. An entertaining text supports the choral score as the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir invite us into the world of Pau-Puk-Keewis, Hiawatha, Nokomis and Chibiabos. Here, we are reminded of the music of the great Hollywood Westerns of the 1960s. The overall scoring of the cantata is nicely balanced between instruments and choir. It was however, slightly disconcerting to watch the tenor, Zach Borichevsky, (a late addition to the programme in place of Kim Begley) sitting beside the conductor with a constipated expression, as he awaited his solo as ‘the gentle Chibiabos’. Borichevsky’s annunciation was perfect, if not a little overdone at times. His performance was competent, but too much vibrato, and breathy phrasing, detracted from the pure, controlled essence of the character. The star of the show was undoubtedly the Philharmonic choir who gave a powerful and entertaining interpretation of this choral work.