In Concert – BBC Singers @ St Giles’ Cripplegate & St Paul’s Knightsbridge

by John Earls

It has been quite a time for the BBC Singers recently. As this world-renowned choir approaches its 100th anniversary, the past few weeks have seen the BBC announce their closure, and magnificent campaign against it in response (including more than 700 composers writing to the BBC director general in condemnation) Here on Arcana you can get a glimpse of their recorded worth, with an appreciation and a BBC Singers playlist.

Thankfully a temporary reprieve has since been issued, with the BBC issuing a statement on an “alternative funding solution”.

All of this was book-ended by two concerts of sacred music broadcast on BBC Radio 3 for Holy Week, both demonstrating what a unique and valuable choir they are.

On 17th March they gave their first concert following the BBC’s shameful axing announcement at St Giles’ Cripplegate in London. It was inevitably a special and emotional occasion. The programme of choral and cello music went under the bitterly ironic title of All Will Be Well (after Roxanna Panufnik’s piece of the same name which concluded the programme). “I’m still the producer of the BBC Singers” said Jonathan Manners in his introduction to much applause.

The concert was a fitting example of the range and depth of the choir’s repertoire in terms of time (it opened with Hildegard von Bingen’s O cruor sanguinis from the 12th Century) and style. It displayed impressively their ability to convey a sense of comfort and balm such as in Lesia Dychko’s short piece Blessed be the name (Emma Tring a beautiful solo soprano) as well something more unsettling like Fac me tecum pie flere by Sven-David Sandström.

But this was a programme of choral and cello music and cellist Benjamin Hughes was individually expressive as well as combining powerfully with the choir, both in evidence in Knut Nystedt’s Stabat Mater.

A magnificent encore of Maurice Duruflé’s motet Ubi Caritas was followed by a rapturous and moving ovation (below)

The concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Palm Sunday and is available online for a limited period.

Less than three weeks later, and following the BBC statement announcing a suspension of the closure, the group performed a Music for Maundy Thursday concert of sacred pieces on the theme of ‘contemplation, sorrow and reflection’ for live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London (above).

Yet again the programme highlighted the sweep of their repertoire opening with a meditative motet from the 1590s, Vittoria Aleotti’s Miserere mei, Deus (from the first published book of sacred music by a woman) and also featuring sacred pieces from the 21st Century (Karin Rehnqvist’s I raise my hands and Judith Bingham’s Watch with Me), as well as William Byrd’s 14th Century The Lamentations of Jeremiah.

But there were two pieces where the group really shone to spectacular effect. Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater à 10, with Richard Pearce on chamber organ, was stunning and utterly compelling in its detailed delivery. Francis Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence made a glorious finale.

One must also acknowledge the key role of Chief Conductor, Sofi Jeannin, always assured yet empathetic. To watch her conduct is a mesmerising experience in itself.

The extent to which the BBC Singers and Jeannin develop and promote a diverse repertoire (they have a 50:50 gender policy for composers whose music they perform), engage in learning and community work, regularly perform commissions and broadcast on Radio 3 (making their phenomenal output available to such a wide audience) is all part of what makes them so unique.

I have seen them many times over many years and they never fail to move me. These two concerts only served to prove just why they are irreplaceable.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

Click on this text to find out more about the Musicians’ Union campaign to protect the BBC Singers after September and action to stop job cuts at BBC Orchestras

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