Elgar country in West Yorkshire

by
06 March 2007

Roderic Dunnett enjoys English choral music, old and new, in Leeds

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WHEN Elgar’s oratorios were first performed in the Midlands, it was known for the chorus in Hereford, Worcester, or Birmingham to be supplemented by singers from North Staffordshire, London, or Leeds. There was an irony in the last; for the dominant figure in the Festival and choral music of Leeds was Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. He remained Elgar’s bête noire, despite considerately arranging significant commissions from Leeds, and other performances, for his sometimes petulant rival.

But Elgar was not without his Yorkshire loyalties; for he frequently visited his friend Dr Charles Buck in Giggleswick and nearby Settle. For Elgar, Yorkshire and its Dales may have felt like a more spacious version of his beloved Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

Donald Hunt has spanned both counties, too. For almost 17 years, he was organist and choirmaster of Leeds Parish Church, and Leeds city organist, before his retranslation south in 1975 to Worcestershire, the county of Elgar’s birth, and to Worcester Cathedral, in the city where Elgar served as organist to St George’s Roman Catholic Church in the 1880s.

To celebrate Elgar’s 150th anniversary and to boost the Leeds Parish Church choral-foundation appeal, Dr Hunt, now Principal of the Elgar School of Music in Worcester, brought his choir, the Elgar Chorale, to Leeds to perform alongside the city’s equivalent, the St Peter’s Singers.

One advantage of this marriage was that Simon Lindley, organist and choirmaster of Leeds Parish Church, organist of Leeds Town Hall, and secretary of the Church Music Society, was available to provide superb accompaniments to many of the items. His attentiveness, imaginative and thoughtful registrations, and galvanising precision lent this striking concert a vitality that greatly enhanced the overall impact.

His perfectly turned pedal ostinati (Herbert’s “A man that looks on glass”) could mesmerise one into a pleasant trance; and his finessed control of several delayed crescendi paid dividends.

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This concert was not all Elgar, but Elgar provided the frame: both his landmark anthem “Great is the Lord”, written for Westminster Abbey in 1912, and the more jerkily episodic “Give unto the Lord”, composed for the bicentenary of the Sons of the Clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1914, are well conceived for large spaces, and not without some affinities with Elgar’s Violin Concerto and Second Symphony. Both came across with marked assurance, not least thanks to attractive solo work in the former from Dr Hunt’s son, the sensitive baritone Thomas Hunt.

Other Elgar works, especially three Marian anthems initiated during his time at St George’s, seemed something of a whimper (“Ave Maria, gratia plena” was certainly the best sustained). The sopranos’ (not the altos’) enunciation verged on the feeble, and the result in the seemingly absorbent east-end acoustic of the Parish Church seemed spongey and limp. “Ecce sacerdos magnus”, written in 1889 for a pastoral visit to St George’s by the Archbishop of Birmingham, and (as Dr Hunt observed) perhaps the earliest instance of Elgar’s “ceremonial” style, fared far better.

But there were good things to come. Dr Hunt has commissioned assiduously since founding his choir, and two notable such works were beautifully sung here. One was the anthem “In Exile” by Herbert Sumsion (1899-1995). This is a powerful treatment of Psalm 137, whose modal minor hue bears in places a passing resemblance to “The Lamentation”, a quasi-canticle setting by Bairstow, who was organist of Leeds before his translation to York Minster. It should surely be heard in many more cathedrals further afield.

Sumsion’s work is equally haunting. Dr Hunt’s bold decision, despite Sumsion’s own caveats, to perform the unaccompanied version paid off handsomely. This was a searing performance, and included some communicative pianissimo singing, an unnerving angst in the gloomily repeated “in a strange land”, and yet another poignant baritone solo.

One of the first works to be commissioned for the choir (in 1981), it also provided here an affectionate tribute to Donald Hunt’s revered mentor. Dr Hunt sang as a boy chorister and served as assistant organist of Gloucester Cathedral under Sumsion.

The other Elgar Chorale commission was Howard Blake’s Songs of Truth and Glory: five settings of well-known poems by George Herbert — all settings primarily for chorus, in contrast with Vaughan Williams’s solo-led Five Mystical Songs — hymnic in character, but each a charmingly turned, sparkling miniature.

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The tenors’ opening to “Come, my way” was outstanding, and the choir’s a cappella launch to “Teach me, my God and King” sounded equally pure. Simple in essence these may be, but these five songs proved shrewdly varied and utterly delightful. For the last “Let all the world”, the organ seemed to embark on a tongue-in-cheek Handel organ concerto: both entrancing and effective.

Donald Hunt’s own major work Hymnus Paschalis, written for three choirs, including originally two Dutch cathedral choirs, plus organ and orchestra, was performed here in the version for choir and organ alone, and emerged bracing and ebullient even in this reduced form. The music brings together a series of Easter hymns and antiphons, in particular a beguiling plainsong melody (Ad coenam Agni providi) from the 13th-century Worcester Antiphoner, and preserved in a 1950s volume of such tunes (Hymnale) issued by the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey.

The disappointment here was that the enunciation of the Latin texts sounded so desultory that even the written translations communicated little. This was an appalling drawback. But the subtle employment of other Easter melodies (including Rockingham, alluringly introduced with an organ quint stop, and Victory) revealed a work of considerable dramatic weight and imagination.

Simon Lindley’s cool mastery of the very taxing organ part here was particularly impressive, and both choirs — especially the basses’ and altos’ sensitive delivery of plainsong — emerged otherwise with full honours.

For more information about the Leeds Parish Church Choral Foundation Appeal, write to the Friends of the Music of Leeds Parish Church at St Peter’s House, Kirkgate, Leeds LS2 7DJ; phone 011 393 0807; or email fomlpc@ic24.net.

www.leedsparishchurch.org.uk

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