In the old days the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts used to run to a weekly plan. Mondays were Wagner and Fridays were Beethoven, though they did not perform on Sundays then, so the idea of “Choral Sundays”, as instigated for this year’s BBC Proms, would have come as a novelty.
Choral works popular and lesser known will rub shoulders. Having kicked off last week with a rarely heard dinosaur in Havergal Brian’s Symphony No.1, “The Gothic”, surely the most outsized choral work ever written, the series followed up on Sunday with Verdi’s Requiem – almost modest by comparison, even if the BBC had splashed out on the luxury of three full-sized choirs for the occasion.
Nothing beats a big choral extravaganza at the BBC Proms and this performance was as big as they come. The conductor, Semyon Bychkov, likes his Verdi on a grand scale, so there were spacious vistas of the Day of Judgement and much rich-toned, weighty playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The conception was impressively carried through, though a truly Italianate performance would have had leaner sound and the devil snapping at its heels.
The line-up of soloists seemed to be a reunion of some of the cast from last year’s stellar performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. As ever, the soprano Marina Poplavskaya was a mass of contradictions, at one moment full-throated, at the next floating lines of fragile purity, then unexpectedly losing pitch – though everything she did carried conviction. Best overall was Joseph Calleja, singing the tenor part with uncommon grace, though the subdued singing of bass Ferruccio Furlanetto also hit an affectingly sorrowful tone at times. Mariana Pentcheva, stepping in at short notice as the mezzo soloist, wobbled away fearsomely. These were four very individual personalities who were inclined to go their own way, not blending well and often wandering out-of-tune.
Though less exalted by nature, the three choirs – the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir – made a better job of knitting into a cohesive whole. Non-professional choirs have come on a lot in recent years and this was a highly commendable showing, which bodes well for the rest of this year’s Choral Sundays.