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Recalling the years of adversity

28 February 2014

By Roderic Dunnett


YORKSHIRE suffered countless casualties in the First World War. When the crucial bastion of the German defences on the Somme, Fricourt, fell in July 1916, the East and West Yorkshires and Green Howards bore the brunt of the attack.

In tribute, the University of Leeds is conducting an extended survey, with lectures, exhibits, schools events, and conferences, of the northern city's contribution throughout the First World War.

Now the characterful St Peter's Singers, closely associated with the former Leeds Parish Church, now Leeds Minster, have lent their voices to recalling the city's sacrifice.

The Singers, conducted by the minster's Director of Music, Simon Lindley, have shown a consistent flair for programming. Performed to a large and rapt lunchtime audience in Leeds Town Hall, their ample programme was not only a memorial to the fallen, but a reminder of top-rank music with Leeds connections.

The anthems of Sir Edward Bairstow - organist at Leeds before three decades at York Minster - often have a powerful commemorative feel. "Lord, thou hast been our refuge" (Psalms 144 and 10), composed for the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St Paul's Cathedral in 1917, could not be more apt or explicit: "Man is like a thing of nought: his time passeth away like a shadow. . . Comfort us again, now after the time that thou hast plagued us; and for the years wherein we have suffered adversity."

Spiky, brassy chromatics from the organ (David Houlder) and a dynamic choral fugue ("Thou shalt arise . . .") added urgent tension; yet the choir's best moment was in the superlative Amen, where Lindley drew a warmth, expressiveness, and confidence excelling all that preceded.

Elgar's "We will remember them" is drawn from his Laurence Binyon cantata The Spirit of England, first performed, though without the famous initial section, by the Leeds Choral Union two months before the Somme campaign began. In this compressed version, the mezzo-sopranos or altos made, as elsewhere, a significant and affecting contribution. The close, "At the going down of the sun, and in the morning: we will remember them" produce murmuring susurrations as mesmerising as the music of Arvo Pärt.

An admirably stirring full setting of Binyon's verse was composed by the young Mark Blatchly, later assistant organist at Gloucester Cathedral, in 1980. It was written for the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall. The whole work, retrospective in style, is immensely compelling, and the Leeds choir rose to the occasion, not least in some finely assured unison singing and canonic detail ("They mingle not with their laughing comrades again").

But the highlight of the whole recital came when the trumpeter Rebecca Todd intoned an almost subliminal, exquisitely restrained rendering of the Last Post, which Blatchly fuses with the chorus in an inspired touch worthy of someone twice his then age, evoking both mystery and wonder.

Holst's immediately post-war short Festival Te Deum (1919) feels almost Cranmer-restrained in its simplicity, though it drew attractive parallellings from the choir upper voices, with tenors added. The men-only section from the same composer's metrical (though not oversimplistic) psalm-setting "Turn back, O man", over Houlder's trudging organ pedal, was especially well carried off.

Impressive programme design showed again in Herbert Howells's "We have heard with our ears, O God", easily the least often heard of four anthems dating from 1941, and another war. E. W. Naylor's full-bodied Evening Canticles in A reminded us that his father was a Leeds boy chorister before progressing to become Bairstow's predecessor-but-one at York.

If "Greater Love(Many waters cannot quench love)" (1912), by John Ireland, who was educated till the age of 14 at Leeds Grammar School, predates the First World War, it is a piece of great power, both textually (five New Testament sources and the Song of Songs) and musically. The St Peter's Singers achieved here their glorious best: a maturer sound than at the outset, a sense of the profound, a wonderful top line for the searing, prophetic "Greater Love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15.13), and superb soprano and baritone solos (Julie Kilburn and Philip Wilcox).

No less imposing was the solo in Stanford's "For lo! I raise up" - one of those once-overlooked anthems championed by Donald Hunt at Leeds and now by Lindley, in which "I will stand upon my watch" was gorgeously and poignantly intoned by Kristina James (followed by the tenor Christopher Trenholme).

This committed concert served alike as a grieving memorial and a toast to courage and national pride. It carried off both admirably.

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