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Radio review: How to Play and The Documentary: Song of the Bell

04 August 2023


How to Play (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) eavesdropped on rehearsals for a performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem by the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales

How to Play (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) eavesdropped on rehearsals for a performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem by the BBC National Chorus and Or...

THE lullaby and the requiem have much in common. Shakespeare knew it, when he paraphrased the In Paradisum: “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” It is this style of ceremonial language which we tend nowadays to prefer for our funeral rituals, which is why, of all the classic Requiem Masses, Fauré’s continues to be the most popular. When a contemporary critic described it as “a lullaby of death”, he meant the comment disparagingly; but he managed to articulate precisely what Fauré had intended: “A happy deliverance . . . rather than a distressing transition.”

The consolatory power of this work is as meaningful for performers of Fauré’s Requiem as it is for audiences. This was evidenced by How to Play (Radio 4, Thursday of last week), in which we eavesdropped on rehearsals for a performance by the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales. We heard from chorus members, conductor, and chorus master about the emotional immersion of the work; but also got some sense of its tech­nical challenges.

It is heartening to hear a programme about music-making which does not give the impression that all that you need to pull off a great performance is a tragic backstory and a sense of the numinous. It’s about where you put your consonants and how you breathe. The soloist Rhian Lois talked about controlling the amount of saliva in her mouth. These are the things of which transcendent performances are made.

I cannot remember the last time a presenter of a BBC documentary spoke of being a practising Christian. Indeed, so natural and unobtrusive was Hannah Ajala’s admission that I had to go back and check that I had heard correctly. The context was The Documentary: Song of the Bell (World Service, Tuesday of last week) which told of the export, for sale in sub-Saharan Africa, of church bells forged in Italy. The underlying story was about the falling and rising fortunes of Christianity in different parts of the globe.

Ms Ajala’s family background is Nigerian, and she is most comfortable in the Pentecostal tradition. Perhaps this was why, when she interviewed Dr Paul Enenche, her tone did not carry the sneer of the Western reporter who assumes that all wealthy pastors must in some way or other be on the fiddle. Dr Enenche is the leader of the successful Dunamis International Gospel Centre, with its headquarters at a megachurch in Abuja. According to Dr Enenche, it is the demographic changes in Nigeria and elsewhere which are turbo-charging the growth of Christianity.

Especially for the Roman Catholic Church in Nigeria, bells are the sound of the universal communion, the symbolic architecture of Catholicism. The Marinelli family, who make the bells in Italy, are grateful for the trade: 25 per cent of their bells now go to Africa, while many of the buildings that they used to supply with them are redundant.

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