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City of London Festival London July 2005

The Birds at St Andrew's Holborn
James Gilchrist at St Andrew by the Wardrobe
Mark Elder and The Hallé at St Paul's Cathdral (Bruckner 5)

Music critics can feel a little out of place at this great annual celebration 'for all who live, work or shop in the Square Mile'. The emphasis is upon bringing international artists into the magnificent churches and Livery Halls, with acoustic considerations secondary. It is a huge success, attracting audiences of thousands, with full houses at the three events we sampled this year, some of the 45 venues so little known that the BBC presenter introduced one concert by congratulating everyone on having actually found Wren's bombed and rebuilt St Andrew by the Wardrobe Church (the programme book has a good map!).

I must note that all the audiences appeared appreciative and content, having been taken to task recently for omitting to make that clear at an opera performance (nor, in my corresponent's opinion, that two singers I had not mentioned individually were respectively 'charming and sassy').

First, we found ourselves disenchanted outsiders at a newly commissioned opera to Aristophanes The Birds, reviewed separately in comparison with a musical at the City's prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The words (provided but unreadable in the dark) were mostly indecipherable at the other St Andrew (Holborn) and none were supplied for James Gilchrist's recital of Britten and Tippett at the curiously named St Andrew by the Wardrobe. Peculiar to listen to carefully chosen complex texts being sung for an hour, grasping odd phrases but rarely meanings in overall context, even with familiarity with all the works unshared by nearly all of the audience (I attended, and remember well, the Pears/Britten 1947 premiere of Britten's 1st Canticle!). No fault of Gilchrist's; an admirable tenor who gives keen attention to articulation, and was obviously trying his best to get across Quarles, Hudson and Michelangelo on this occasion in the swirling auditory soup stirred up under the barrel roof of this resonant church. Pianist Simon Crawford-Philips, disconcertingly diminished as sighted from the raised pews in which we sat, came into his own only in Tippett's 2nd Sonata, which can sound clinical in a dry acoustic and actually benefited from St Andrew's generous reverberation. This was a fine recital which will sound far better on BBC R3, to be broadcast 27 July as a BBC Lunchtime Concert.

The festival organisers, with the assistance of artists themselves, could easily arrange for texts to be provided at the recitals (as always at Wigmore Hall). Actually they are free! If the lavish programme books were priced at, say, £1, instead of being free, everyone would appreciate them as bargains, and that would easily cover the costs. (We saw some people without the programme books, doubtless assuming they would be too costly.)

On to St Paul's Cathedral, the site of many a musical disaster (once, I got my money back after a Britten opera there which got completely lost in the muddle of competing echoes). I had opined that if anything could work there it would be Bruckner, his layered orchestration derived essentially from the organ's typical use of registration (Seifert). We were sat under the great dome amongst a vast audience, mostly not regular concert-goers, we wondered (our neighbour asked what Hallé meant and knew not who was Bruckner).

It was all very grand and duly moving; one experienced it as a dialogue between Mark Elder and the stonework of St Paul's, which modified and counterpointed the direct sound from the strings (most of them women musicians in today's The Hallé) backed by muted-sounding woodwind, and brass augmented by Wagner tubas introduced in honour of his idol's death. Raised platforms for the winds might have helped their visibility and variable audibility. Substantial bonuses on this occasion were a magnificent mirror sculpture by Rebecca Horn installed for the festival, which gives endless visual reverberations to the roof, and the newly cleaned dome - even cleaner, we were told, than when it was being constructed, with soot rising from the fires which kept the builders warm!

Inspiring though Bruckner at St Paul's had been, it was good to return next day to savouring at home the magnificent Gunter Wand/NDR Sinfonieorchester performances of Nos. 5, 6, 8 & 9, newly collected on DVD. These have completely converted me to Bruckner's leisurely musical world, and I recommend this box unreservedly to fellow doubters [TDK DV-COWANDBOX1] .


© Peter Grahame Woolf