Reviews

ALL THIS SPLENDID MUSIC
Peter Lutton

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This year’s summer concert was a little more traditional in style and format than we have become used to, but was none the less interesting for that. The focus was largely on music that can be and sometimes is performed liturgically, ie during an actual service, though it is rare for the Requiem by Duruflé to be so presented. Your scribe was lucky enough to hear it this way on All Souls’ Day in King’s College, Cambridge in university days. Likewise, the equally good choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, led the way in the in-service performance of masses such as the Vierne in the college chapel from the 1960s onwards, under the great George Guest. Again, we music students made a point of being there on Sunday mornings – these large-scale liturgical performances were a revelation.

But enough of ancient history. In the here and now, ECS brought us music once again suited to the large space in St Martin’s Church. The Mass by Louis Vierne, the blind organist of Notre Dame, Paris, was originally for two organs (what luxury!) but realistically a solo organ version was also produced and is more often used for obvious practical reasons. The instrument at St Martin’s is suitably matched to the scale of music and building, with organist Peter Jaekel making good use of it. The choral textures are mostly uncomplicatedly chordal and there was great clarity in the choir’s presentation.

The confident start in the opening Kyrie showed in the well-contrasted dynamics and the good tenor line, as well as in the careful balance between choir and organ. This sense of direction continued in the Gloria where the basses gave a good account of themselves and there was a good steady build-up in the Qui Sedes. A difficult restart was very well executed. In the Sanctus, some entries sounded somewhat less secure but the climax was very exciting, with the Hosannas sounding particularly happy. Unaccompanied sections of the Benedictus came off well and the slow part was very atmospheric. Once again, the build-up in the Hosanna was very good.

The Agnus Dei contains some more subtle part-writing which came across well particularly in the chromatic passages. Tuning slipped a little in the C sharp major section but the ending was very well balanced and musically effective. Certainly, such a mass as this is very suitable for a choir like ECS and it was a very good choice as a concert opener

The Regent Sinfonia’s rendering of the Capriol Suite was an apt selection – English music to lead us into the next course. They played it with great style and accuracy, apart from a few less secure moments in the Pavane. This was made up for with the lovely lilt in the Tordion, very good ensemble in the Bransles, real warmth and contrasting delicacy in the Pieds-en-l’air and a wonderful dance rhythm and sense of energy in the final movement, Mattachins. Many moments in this suite, particularly in Pieds-en-l’air, make clear Peter Warlock’s fine understanding and adept handling of earlier English styles, and it was obvious that everyone enjoyed this very much.

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So to O Joyful Soul, the music commissioned by the Society in memory of much-loved and very long-standing former choir member Cecil Wiltshire and a further venture for the choir in the world of the commissioning of new music. In this, the world premiere, the words of two psalms, poetry by Pope and Lucas and a prayer by Cranmer were very suitable choices for composer Jonathan Willcocks to set. They reflect Cecil’s dedication to the life of the church and his enjoyment of all things English. The composer chose to use a musical style that is basically traditional and tonal, but with nods in a modern direction. The seven/eight rhythms of the music for the outer movements were snappy and effective and choir and orchestra delivered them crisply and with confidence. The harp and trumpets were well used at appropriate points and gave sufficient variety to the orchestral accompaniment without the need for a large band. The dreamy nature of the second movement, Happy the Man, was achieved through the gently floating soprano solo, beautifully sung by Lisa Swayne. If the first choral entry sounded a little insecure, their accompaniment of the solo line was very well handled. The sotto voce ending with soloist floating on top was a delight.

The more churchlike style of the third movement, Remember not, Lord, our Offences, reminded us of Cecil’s contribution as a choir member and as a Reader at St Martin’s for so long. It was simple but heartfelt, even when the orchestra were occasionally a little loud. Balance within the choir however was always good and the right effect was achieved. In the fourth movement, the text was rather more flowery, and if this should be a problem for some, it might helpful to remember that we often sing words such as this in works like Elgar’s songs From the Bavarian Highlands. The text here is almost a foreigner’s idealistic view of this sceptered isle, but it was set sensitively, with attention given to the clarity of the words in performance by both composer and choir. Your scribe particularly appreciated the excellent way the alto line was sung at the words ‘how would I love to see your face again’ each time it came. In one section the choir accompaniment was a little loud for the soloist, and I wondered why there was any need for the first violin to double the soloist near the final bars. These are, however, minor points – overall the performance was effective and moving.

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It can therefore be honestly said that a fit and proper tribute to a special human being has been well paid in the careful crafting and tender performance of this intriguing new work of art.

Duruflé’s Requiem of 1947 is a twentieth century landmark for all who appreciate French religious music. It goes further than Fauré’s excellent example in using the actual plainsongs of the Requiem Mass but it does not hesitate to move ahead in places in terms of harmonic, rhythmic and melodic expression, though without resorting to the extreme dissonance of much of last century’s composition. Therefore, it was a fitting climax to this splendid concert and an appropriate piece (if one may say it once again) in such a large space – something which it should always have.

The work has various scorings: organ alone, organ with strings, trumpets, and timpani and the original, full orchestra with organ. (Duruflé’s own recording of this last makes for interesting listening). The second, which we heard, is the one, for practical reasons, most often done. We were treated to an enjoyable performance on a par with the location, but there were some problems of balance which were never fully solved. Unfortunately, the sixteen-foot flue stops of the pedal organ are all, bar one, very loud and so quite often there was too much organ bass. However the choir put across the expressive nature of this heartfelt music, even if the singer in his or her place on the platform might not have been sure how well the musical line would be projected to the listener. It is the lot of the performer to be unable to hear exactly what an audience actually receives. So, there has to be trust and confidence in what the conductor asks for in terms of louds and softs, balance between the parts and in the details of diction. The overall result was effective, notwithstanding the comments above.

The imbalance referred to above was more or less the only blot on the Introit’s dreamy opening, though an alto entry could have been clearer. The Kyrie needs everyone’s heads to be up which they mostly were (trust the beat!) as the choral lines are very intricate. It built up well and the tempo change was smooth and confident. The eventual climax was impressive, but could have used even more volume from the choir. The decrescendo to the atmospheric ending was very well executed.

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The Domine Jesu Christe had a beautifully sung alto opening followed by a suitably forceful Libera eas. The demanding animato section came across as very confident – not the easiest thing to bring off. The contrasting passage with the floating soprano line, Sed signifer, was very good along with the lovely paired voices in Quam olim Abrahae. Finally, the excellent baritone Edmund Saddington had his chance and his lovely tone was worth waiting for. The Quam olim at the end could perhaps have had more breath support, or is it to do with the slightly higher than concert pitch of the organ? No matter – a very powerful movement delivered well.

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Problems of balance disappeared almost completely in the beautifully ethereal Sanctus, other than for a brief period in the middle. The rhapsodic nature of this lovely movement one might wish to go on for ever. In the Pie Jesu, soloist Lisa Swayne showed a wonderful ability to switch from the full soprano role she had filled earlier in the concert to a rich mezzo-soprano style. The demanding low notes at the end of this musical cry from the heart had an enviable richness and control and the whole movement was very movingly sung and played.

Matters of balance were better in the Agnus Dei – once again, well done, altos and basses! The final few bars were very well delivered. For your reviewer, the tempo of the Lux aeterna was a little fast but otherwise this was a confident and accurate performance of some potentially awkward moments. The organ balance here was very good and the final Quia pius es from the choir was excellent.

The Libera me reached the climaxes necessary for such impassioned music, though the organ did not give both baritone soloist and the choir’s basses much chance in their solo lines. On the other hand, the full Dies illa did benefit from the sheer power of the instrument. The sopranos’ solo was beautifully sung and so I hope it will be felt that any criticism is small, compared with the overall effect of this performance. The somewhat out-of-balance (in terms of length) final In paradisum recovered from a shaky first note to be suitably uplifting and atmospheric, with all matters of balance very well handled.

It was a pleasure to hear the choir again and I am very grateful for the chance both to hear all this splendid music and to write about it. Once again, Julian Collings and the committee are to be commended for the society’s interesting and varied programming.

Peter Lutton was Organist and Assistant Director of Music at St John’s School, Leatherhead, 1976- 2010, and has been Organist and Choirmaster at St Nicolas, Great Bookham, since 2003.
Thanks to Mike Fantham for photographs.

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