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Leeds makes a strong case for Somervell

17 April 2014

Roderic Dunnett lauds a widely neglected work from 1914


TO FIND a performance of Sir Arthur Somervell's The Passion of Christ - a very serviceable, in fact rather sparky musical setting of the events of Holy Week - you have to look to those old reliables: Leeds Minster, and the St Peter's Singers who are associated with it, and who are nursed and conducted by the Minster's Director of Music, Simon Lindley.

If just occasionally their quality can waver, the Singers were on tip-top form for this performance of an undeservedly unusual work - one that caps even Leeds's readings of not only Stainer's The Crucifixion, but also Maunder's Olivet to Calvary, W. S. Lloyd-Webber's The Saviour (which the Minster choir have just reprised in Leeds Town Hall under David Houlder's direction), Charles Wood's The Passion according to St Mark, and others.

Somervell (1863-1937), scion of Uppingham School and King's College, Cambridge, was a younger contemporary of Elgar, and a productive composer whose sallies into English song are rewarding (his Tennyson cycle Maud is a treat, if you can lay your hands on David Wilson-Johnson and David Owen Norris, Hyperion mid-price, CDH 55089). Someone recently advanced the point that if it hadn't been for the war-associated composers (Butterworth, Gurney, W. Denis Browne), Somervell, like Stanford, would be seen as one of the peaks of English song-writing. He also penned the cycle A Shropshire Lad, possibly the first settings of A. E. Housman.

Somervell seemingly devised his own text, which includes congregational hymns. Both choir and soloists made a fine start. The baritone who sang the part of Jesus (Quentin Brown) made a marked effect from the outset (though perhaps with a little too much vibrato later on), and the Evangelist (the tenor Christopher Trenholme) grew in beauty of tone and elegance of line as he advanced: his opening and follow-up in the Garden of Gethsemane section was especially pliant, the lines beautifully enjambed.

When Somervell excels, one senses not just something of the calibre of works by Elgar's friends, Herbert Brewer's Emmaus, or Rutland Boughton's (Christmas) oratorio Bethlehem, but something more. Possibly Brahmsian; with some of the magnificence of those organ-loft composers familiar to cathedral choirs, York's Tertius Noble and Bairstow, or Worcester's Hugh Blair; and far more persuasive than Walford Davies's once-popular Everyman. When he sets "Greater love hath no man than this" - pre-emptively, Somervell's work dates from 1914 - one finds oneself amazed to admit his setting is up to John Ireland's.

As Lindley and his attentive singers articulately and, indeed, excitingly proved, The Passion of Christ is a work not just of beauty - in its almost orchestral organ accompaniment, so notably performed (clarinet solo, use of woods and clear-voiced diapason or fluted chorus, vivid syncopations for the March at The Betrayal) by David Houlder - but in its overall cogency. In passages such as the alto's "Flow fast, my tears, that he so much should do for me", Somervell seems to have been his own Brockes or Matheson or Picander, mimicking with great success the texts of that era.

Thus the sequence of interrogations with which the soprano (Sarah Potter) is pitted against chorus in the Judgment Hall ("My Lord and Master, can it be that Thou must die upon the tree?") is deeply moving, as is the exchange between Jesus on the cross and St John ("Behold thy Mother"). The chorus fugato at "He was despised" is highly effective; and their "Choral Meditation" ("O blessed promise"), upheld by a beautifully calibrated legato, is awesomely expressive.

This was a first-rate undertaking by Leeds, and a finely argued performance of a work that deserves, forthwith, to be brought back into the repertoire.

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