I Suoni di Napoli (The Sounds of Naples) is an annual season of concerts in the neo-gothic splendours of Christ Church Naples on Via San Pasquale. Last night the audience responded enthusiastically to a fine selection of Handel choruses presented by The Choral Scholars of Naples. Ronald Butts-Boehmer directed from the organ keyboard.
The programme began in mournful mood with the symphony and two choruses from the oratorio Esther Shall we of Servitude Complain? and Ye Sons of Israel, mourn. Then, from the Oratorio Israel in Egypt, the choir of 15 summoned up an impressive choral gloom (lights dimmed) with He sent a thick darkness over all the Land before tackling the complex and, in musical terms, large scale chorus The people shall hear. For many of the audience who have enjoyed the Scholars’ excellent performances of Messiah over the years in Naples, the next section was more perhaps more familiar. The choir moved onto the section of Handel’s most famous oratorio which describes Christ’s sufferings: Surely he hath borne our griefs through to He trusted in God. As ever Butts-Boehmer knows how to use his forces of choir and keyboard to create atmosphere and convey emotion while addressing the demanding technical requirements of the music.
By way of interlude to these choruses, the director gave the audience a truly dazzling performance of Louis Verne’s 1927 The Carillon de Westminster, a fantasia on the chimes of Westminster. The music weaves in and out of the chimes; the expression ‘pulling out all the stops’ was possibly invented for this work, which rises to a superb crescendo and requires the organist to be deft of both finger and foot. It also allowed Butts-Boehmer to showcase the considerable charms of the 1890 Bishop & Son organ.
The choral programme resumed with Let thy Hand be strengthened, Let justice and judgement and the Alleluia from the second Coronation Anthem. Here solemnity gives way to rejoicing. The choice of this Alleluia to proceed to the infinitely more celebrated chorus from the Messiah was an opportunity to compare the Handel’s treatment of the subject. In the choir’s rendition the former undoubtedly was extremely beautiful, though it would be hard to compete with the energy and thrilling harmonies of the latter. The majority of the mainly Italian audience were unfamiliar with the tradition that all those present should stand during the Hallelujah Chorus and may have been perplexed to see many people rise to their feet last night. The tradition dates from the first London performance attended by King George II and opinions differ as to why the practice continues to this day. Some say King George certainly rose to his feet and all present were obliged by court etiquette to do likewise, but whether it was because he was moved by the music, was paying his own respects to the King of Kings or, more banally, had fallen asleep and sprang up at the sudden dramatic increase in decibels, remains the subject of debate.
Whatever the answer, the Choral Scholars rose to the occasion magnificently with some very beautiful and dynamic singing.
The evening concluded its passage from darkness to light with an encore of Zadok the Priest from the first Coronation Anthem. This has the pleasurable anticipation of gentle introductory music which suddenly gives way to a ‘wall of sound’ from the combined voices of the choir. An exciting end to a splendid evening of some of Handel’s finest choruses.
Next appointment in the series: Eighteenth century Neapolitan instrumental music (Cilea, Martucci and De Meglio) played by I Cameristi dell’Associazione, 12th December at 7 p.m.