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ROBERT SHAW CHORALE AND ORCHESTRA, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 26th May 1956


There was howling in the vestry as we took our seats. An orgy was evidently in progress. The audience sat there in St John’s Chapel expecting at 8 p.m. to hear the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra perform, amongst other things, Schubert’s Mass in G. But till 8.15 we patiently stared into an empty apse whilst from near at hand there emitted the skirling of sopranos, the trumpeting of tenors and the brattling of basses. Then a gentleman came through our ranks and, in a low, pious voice, asked us to refrain from talking during the performance—or (was it?) from smoking. Of course, St John’s Chapel is as yet unprovided with ash-trays.

Suddenly a door opened. The outer revelry ceased, and some two dozen singers (all undoubtedly soloists in their own right, save the one young man in the centre who scarcely opened his mouth once, and was only there to complete the pattern) filed in order to their seats. Not a hair was ruffled, not a dress awry. No signs remained of the Bacchanalia. Then the orchestra, looking as if butter would not melt in their violins. When all were assembled, all sat down as one. This show of regimentation was but an outward sign of the distressing discipline we were to witness.

It is a principle I recommend to every conductor: Give your choir their “celebration” before the concert, then, all steam let off, they will be as good as gold, supple in your hands, the very slaves of your musical will, if you have any. Again, I recommend the lay-out of the choir so as to avoid all the ladies sitting in one bloc and all the gentlemen in another. Such antique discrimination smacks of the days before women started wearing the trousers. No, let the sexes be mixed, let each singer be his own guide to entries and to pitch, and though an individual, make him learn to blend more nearly with his complementary neighbours.

So it was. The Shaw Chorale was impeccable in pitch, in firmness, in precision, in tone quality, in ease of high notes and sonority of low; and the soloists, drawn from the chorus, were beyond criticism. And yet something was lacking.

It used to be a custom at meals to leave a little of every dish on one’s plate for the Goddess or Muse of Social Etiquette, a Miss Manners, who supposedly arrived after each meal and went round the table eating up the scraps. But the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra in their greed for precision and “nice” musicianship gobbled every morsel of their banquet, and left nothing, absolutely nothing for Miss Music.

We heard O vos omnes of Victoria, then works of Byrd and Schütz, and thus far the deficiencies on the palette did not unduly irk us. But when it came to Bach’s cantata Christus lag in Todesbanden, a deep sense of dissatisfaction began to steal over me, starting in the ankles. The work sounded arid, perfunctory, but admirably drilled. One should not, I suppose, expect a romantic lyricism or dramatic excitement in all music culled from ancient sources. But even in Bach’s day his music must have been performed with some kind of characteristic expressiveness, some human feeling, if not religious fervour—of which one is to-day entitled to expect a counterpart. Of course, a shouting match may well be fervent, but in time it grows monotonous. I cannot think our forefathers were devotees of monotony even if they lacked conventions of dynamic contrast that have in time grown up.

The Army lays down regulations for the performance by its bands of the National Anthem. Each note, each mark of expression is clearly decreed in military law for every instrument. An offender who plays one false diminuendo may be put on a charge and punished with potato-peeling (as to which the regulations are less rigid). But music amongst civilians should not savour of the drill-parade.

Nevertheless, we were prepared for better things in the Schubert Mass. Alas! we were defrauded of this pleasure also. The performers took one deep breath and plunged us into Mozart’s Requiem. It was a long concert, and no Schubert.

There was one relief, the rendering of Samuel Barber’s two prayers of Kierkegaard, from a recent choral work. Though the orchestral score had been reduced to suit the ensemble required by Mozart’s Requiem, this music of Barber’s was by far the most satisfying item in the programme and received by far the most sympathetic performance. I cannot conceive why the whole work was not given. It would have shown that these players and singers for all their discipline and control had not allowed such pedantry to constrict their hearts, that in fact they still could musically care, and make us (which this evening they did not) care as well.

Peter Tranchell