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Songs of praise ring out from the National Gallery  

24 May 2024


Apollo5 recording Songs of Praise at the National Gallery

Apollo5 recording Songs of Praise at the National Gallery

FOR 200 years, the National Gallery has sprawled imposingly along the north side of Trafalgar Square, the backdrop to many events in the life of the nation. Its design matches neighbouring St Martin-in-the-Fields, and its acoustics are also favourable. Usually, the gallery’s only noise is the shuffling feet of spectators as they murmur their way through the rooms. But occasionally there is music.

During the Second World War, when the paintings were removed for safekeeping, Dame Myra Hess arranged daily piano recitals there. The BBC TV programme Songs of Praise visited for the first time last month to record segments in the space where those concerts provided relief from wartime stresses more than 80 years ago.

The gallery is a different place when the evening comes and the busy world is hushed. After the last visitor leaves, the security machines fall silent, and the shops and cafés cease trading. The light seems to relax on the paintings without the crowds, especially in the central rotunda, decorated with biblical scenes by Claude.

The ensemble Apollo5 were the first to sing, taking a central position for “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven”: a performance for the “Art and Christianity” special to be shown this Sunday on BBC1. The quintet’s fresh sound and blended harmonies, adorned with “oohs” and “ahs”, pensively set the scene for a small audience of family, friends, and crew. Another hymn followed — a popular evening hymn, to go into the can for a unspecified future show.

Then the showstopper: “We shall walk through the valley”, Undine Smith Moore’s 1977 arrangement of an African American spiritual. Pitched and paced perfectly, with a meditative feel, this performance will be viewed on the first Sunday of June to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

As Apollo5 took a break, the two BBC Young Choristers of the Year appeared in gala dresses to make their contribution to the National Gallery special. Together, Belinda Gifford-Guy and Natalie Fooks brought poise, sweetness, and vocal technique to Gounod’s “Ave Maria”, accompanied by Ken Burton, pulsing the Bach C-major Prelude beneath it.

Apollo5 returned in smarter clothes for their filming, then were free for a word. “It’s a bit like being in church,” the soprano Penny Appleyard said. “The acoustic is lovely. I find it inspiring.” Clare Stewart, the soprano who anchors the group, felt it particularly special, as two of them had previously studied History of Art. Apart from a storm-struck Lake Annecy, she said, it was one of the best places they had sung together.

Their usual tenor was indisposed; so Will Balkwill had been drafted in at short notice. A lay vicar at Westminster Abbey, just a few hours before he had been singing Rheinberger and Byrd. “It’s my first time with Apollo5, and my first time singing in the National Gallery,” he said.

The Songs of Praise team were equally delighted with their own début in the gallery. The atmosphere and their faces implied that they would be back again soon, perhaps with more time to look at the pictures.


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