Arts & Books

Music Review: A great choral factory tunes up for Britain

The Palau de la Música in Barcelona is a Unesco World Heritage Site and a masterpiece of art nouveau

A few weeks ago I was rash enough to sign off a newspaper piece with the assertion that however much Simon Rattle might want London to have a new concert hall, there would never be the political will to build it. Two days later, George Osborne announced a £1m feasibility study to look into options. Moral: music critics shouldn’t think they understand the world of politics.

But however this envisaged hall turns out, it could never be as fanciful, exquisite or exuberant as the one I’ve just been visiting: the Palau de la Música in Barcelona, which is a Unesco Heritage Site and a masterpiece of art nouveau, alive with stained glass, swirling sculptures and a swarm of life-sized lady muses carved in high relief around the platform, who emerge out of the plasterwork to peer over the shoulders of performing artists.

The effect is bilious, but it means you’re never lonely on that stage: the Palau’s plaster-girls will keep you company. And just as fascinating as the building is the history of how it came to be: the Palau was put up not by the city but by a choral foundation, the Orfeo Catala, which still exists, still runs the hall, and is coming to Britain for a London residency this month.

Spanish choirs don’t generally rank high in the world pecking order, but the Orfeo Catala is an exception. Founded in 1891, it’s a sort of choral factory that turns out singers at different levels of accomplishment and scale. There’s a large amateur chorus; an elite, professional chamber choir; and a tiered succession of training choirs for children and young people who feed into the adult groups as they grow up.

The sound of the big chorus is disarming: full-on, strong, and brighter than you’d ever hear from any comparable British choir – as I can testify, having heard them in the Palau last week, rehearsing the repertoire they’re bringing to London. For the record, it’s Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, which they sing with the LPO at the Festival Hall on April 25, plus a showcase of Catalan choral music at Cadogan Hall on the 26th.

Sadly, the lady muses won’t be with them. And their sound may well be compromised by the acoustics at the RFH. But that, as Mr Osborne now appears to think, is why we need a new hall. Whether the electorate will agree is the question.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (03/4/15).

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