To choristers the laurels

by
15 April 2009

Roderic Dunnett hears Passions in the north and Polish repertoire

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TWO of the great secular halls of the north of England; two of the north’s leading parish-church and cathedral choirs; and two musically contrasted views, one from the 18th and one from the 20th century, of Christ’s Passion.

In Leeds Town Hall, Simon Lind­ley’s choir from Leeds Parish Church offered us The Saviour, a remarkably expressive Passion cantata by William Lloyd Webber.

Lloyd Webber père (1914-82) — head of a music college, and organ­ist, during the Second World War, of All Saints’, Margaret Street, in London — was a shy man whose looks had some of the marbled gran­deur of these surroundings.

In this “Meditation upon the Death of Christ”, to a well-judged text by Bryn Rees, the three parts — each culminating in a hymn — de­pict man’s need for redemption; then, in a substantial central section, the Last Supper, Christ’s Agony in the Garden, and the Crucifixion; and, finally, an optimistic expression of “New Life in Christ”.

What was most reassuring — this wholly convincing performance apart — was the way Lloyd Webber skirted any hint of the sentiment associated with the Passion settings by Stainer and Maunder. He knew his Elgar, at a time when that com­poser was out of fashion, and argu­ably his John Ireland. He made effective use of chro­matics, and had a flair for unpretentious melody.

The tenor Paul Rendall brought a homespun urgency to his narration; the bass Quentin Brown brought out the warmth and intelligence of Lloyd Webber’s musical handling of the role of Christ, sometimes enriched by passages of text that do not always form a part of such Passion settings.

The most satisfying elements were, first, the brightness and assur­ance of the Leeds boy choristers — they had done their work, and their diligence showed in their turnout, forthright enunciation, and musical finesse — and, second, the capable pacing by the conductor David Houlder, ably abet­ted by Simon Lindley, the Leeds City Organist, with a rich array of woods and diapasons on this famous­ly resplen­­dent organ.

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Together, they proved that a little courage in programme-planning can pay off: for a lunchtime event, the ample spaces of the Town Hall were jam-packed.

ACROSS the Pennines, Manchester now boasts two great concert halls, the historic Free Trade and the gleaming new Bridgewater Hall, home to the Hallé Orchestra.

It was to the latter that the young choristers of Manchester Cathedral decamped to join a very alert Man­chester Camerata and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, for a ren­dering of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Thanks to the conductor, Nicholas Kraemer, and the superb tenor Evan­gelist, James Gilchrist, this acquired a period edge and a forward momen­tum maintained throughout the three hours.

If the solos from Clare (St Peter, Pilate, etc.) were uneven (with the notable exception of a pair of counter­tenor false witnesses), under Timothy Brown their delivery as an ensemble has few peers among undergraduate choirs.

Kraemer, who has connections with the choir, belongs with Hog­wood, Norrington, and Munro among the earliest generation of advocates of period-style playing. His influence was patent through­out: not just on the first-class Camerata woodwind — paired flutes early on, a solo bassoon, oboes and oboes d’amore latterly — but on the string sound also, not least the second orchestral semi-chorus (Kraemer’s dividing of the orchestra worked to wondrous effect), who came magnifi­cently into their own in later sections.

The usually admirable Matthew Hargreaves, a lively opera singer, lacked focus as Christ, especially alongside as eloquent an Evangelist as Gilchrist. Of the other soloists, the Wigmore Hall Prize-winning bari­tone Stephan Loges and I Fagiolini’s mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson proved supremely expressive, above all where each risked a pianissimo in such a spacious hall, and triumphed because of Kraemer’s and the Camerata’s matching delicacy.

Conversely, the former ENO prin­ci­pal Mark Le Brocq brought an almost Heldentenor glow to the tenor arias, which paid magnificent divi­dends.

The triumph for me, however, was the singing — and, again, demean­our and turnout — of the mixed-voice Manchester choristers, several of whom were very young. The chorales with chorus in the first half cut through like a knife: it’s what Bach would have wanted, and what the Knabenchor of St Thomas’s, Leipzig, would undoubtedly have supplied.

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