Stockhausen in Mersey mode

02 November 2006

by Roderic Dunnett

WHEN Bishop John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) presided over the newly formed diocese of Liverpool, there was no cathedral. From where he now lies in the cathedral’s south aisle, like a recumbent John Wycliffe or marbled Geneva Reformer, he must marvel at the tower and building looming above him.

Bishop Ryle might have raised an eyebrow, too, at the concert by the New London Chamber Choir, which brought its own ritual twist to the cathedral’s centenary celebrations, hot on the heels of John Tavener’s newly commissioned Liverpool Mass.

The conductor James Wood’s singers can pull off just about anything, as their mesmerising British première of the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Litanei 97 revealed. His “litany” reflects any serious craftsman’s earnest aspiration that his distinctly personal idiom may “channel”, even “incarnate”, those truths that lie beyond.

Stockhausen’s German text was not supplied, which was inconsiderate to the audience for this electronics-free offering. The words, penned in the 1960s — the setting is more recent — have a distinctly egocentric feel. Elusive yet ingenious, although unhelped by some dotty stylised choir hopscotch, the work has an attractive transparency. The angular intervals on offer were superbly served by the cathedral’s cavernous echo.

So was the second half, in which Jeremy Summerly directed an electrifying performance — full of dramatic frissons — of the medieval Play of Daniel, based on a drama by Abelard’s pupil Hilarius of Paris, and first championed in England by David Wulstan’s Clerkes of Oxenforde.

Three outstanding soloists (amid a mixed bunch) were the baritone Minjas Zugik, an overweening Belshazzar; Peter Johnson, the haughty Darius; and the tenor Christopher Bowen, a cutting, withering Daniel. No wonder those poor lions were cowed.

The night before, as part of a Chester Summer Music Festival — which also included James MacMillan’s articulate outcry against 17th-century (and by implication any) witch-hunts, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie — came a brilliantly imaginative programme at Chester Cathedral delivered by the thrillingly on-form Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chester Festival Chorus, directed by David Hill.

Completed to celebrate the Columbus quatercentenary, on the composer’s arrival in America in 1892, Anton Dvoák’s pot-boiler Te Deum contains some wonderfully energised solos. They were sung with aplomb by Elizabeth Donovan, a young soprano who has excelled in opera at Manchester’s Royal Northern College, and the bass Matthew Rose, a prodigiously gifted, massive-voiced, slightly copy-bound Royal Opera House Young Artist.

The orchestra’s own contributions were glorious: a riveting performance of the prayerful Meditation on an Old Bohemian [“Wenceslas”] Chorale by Dvorák’s son-in-law Josef Suk. This was an achingly beautiful, Renaissance-imbued elegy of 1914 to rival Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia; and Vltava, from Smetana’s cycle Ma Vlast (My Country), in which Bohemia’s river eddies through Czech landscape and past the twin fortresses of Prague to fuse with the Elbe. Hill’s bubbling brook sallied forth a little wildly; yet the result was magical: transparent as water, vivid as a torrent in flood, and a graphic historical travelogue.

Just a dozen bars of the masterly Spring Symphony (1949) performed by David Hill, the hard-concentrating Chester Chorus, and spirited Manchester Boys’ Choir was enough to confirm the genius of the 35-year-old Benjamin Britten.

His ceaseless invention takes the breath away: sparky, mysterious settings of Nashe, Spenser, George Peele and Henry Vaughan (“Waters above! Eternal springs!”) dazzled, one by one; yet W. H. Auden supplies the work’s emotive and dramatic heart (“And, gentle, do not care to know Where Poland draws her Eastern bow”). The dark-hued mezzo Anna Burford and tenor Peter Hoare excelled.

A magical evening.

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