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
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
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
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.