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Choirs and composers hark back to tragedy of 1914

28 November 2014

Remembrance-tide yielded a bumper crop of music. Roderic Dunnett reports


Popular but not populist: the composer Karl Jenkins

Popular but not populist: the composer Karl Jenkins

HAMBURG was one of those German cities that suffered most from Allied bombing during the Second World War. It seemed apt that, in a concert to commemorate the unfolding of the First World War, the Sutton Valence Choral Society, the leading large vocal ensemble in Maidstone, should team up with its opposite number, Ars Nova, a vigorous consort drawn from the environs of Hamburg, where Telemann and C. P. E. Bach were successive music directors of the city's churches.

It was apt, too, to choose a work - Karl Jenkins's The Armed Man - whose dozen sections, including the Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei of the mass, address issues of war through the ages (Agincourt, the Great War, Hiroshima, the distant past), and inject a range of music to match. It is a work that is consciously popular, but not intentionally or ruthlessly populist.

The North German choir, under its conductor Volkmar Zehner, prefaced this uplifting concert in All Saints', Maidstone, with its own evening recital given at St Dunstan's, Cranbrook, near by. If the choir showed an impressive approach to singing in English - four achingly beautiful (or vengeful) Purcell works, and Walton's supremely refined A Litany, written when he was a chorister of 15. It was touching, too, to hear the German choir's recital topped out by the organ Elegy by George Thalben-Ball.

Dresden was represented: the well-rehearsed ensemble showed an intimate understanding of the refined early Southern Baroque of Heinrich Schütz ("Es ist erschienen", "Unser keiner lebet"). But what caught my ear was a work by a much later Kantor of the famous Kreuzkirche in Dresden, Rudolf Mauersberger (1889-1971).

Choirmaster there both before and after the Second World War, Mauersberger, like other organists, had the tragic experience of seeing his treasured and gifted former choristers march off to die for the Wehrmacht in Normandy or Stalingrad, or just perish, with their choir school, in the ruins of Dresden.

While some of his music is cheerful - several carols, for instance - you can hear the pain in Mauersberger's sorrowful litanies and penitential psalm settings, such as here, "Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst" ("How doth the city lie desolate", from the Lamentations of Jeremiah), which positively ache. Too young to fight even in Berlin, the most famous of Mauersbergers's pupils was the tenor Peter Schreier, a boy alto soloist from 1945 to 1952.

The joint Maidstone choirs attacked Jenkins's military farrago - honouring the composer's 70th birthday - with the kind of zest it required. If some movements are more simplistic - despite a joyously sung Tennysonian envoi, the last few movements slightly outstay their welcome - the conductor, Bryan Gipps, pupil of an equally great mentor, Allan Wicks, produced a memorable, at times thunderous, reading from his confidently marshalled large forces. Entries were almost frighteningly precise, dynamics were cleverly varied, a sometimes subtly subdivided beat wrought marvels, and the enunciation - so important in such a work - was a constant treat: final consonants, for instance, in "Now the guns have stopped", a tender tribute by Guy Wilson, Master of the Royal Armouries at Leeds, which commissioned the work for the Millennium.

This enunciation was crucial to the frighteningly realistic Hiroshima poem by a survivor, Toge Sankichi, and in a fiery extract from the Mabharata. No less articulate, the cello solo before the Benedictus (designed for Julian Lloyd Webber), played by William Bass, was a highlight of the evening, and of some finely articulated playing by the Beresford Sinfonia. The church, with its spacious nave and aisles, into which the sound seemed to funnel out and disperse, was wholly beneficial.

But, if the Sutton Valence choir resounded in true swashbuckling vein, it produced more, and subtler, surprises in the earlier half. Here we were treated to more penitential music: Stainer, some polished Palestrina, more Purcell, which had a real rarified, pure quality - impressively concentrated, coming from such large forces.

Even more admirable, were that possible, were the interspersed readings: Wilfred Owen's grim visions, finely and mysteriously modulated by Richard Bourne, and even more astonishingly shaped ("Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes"; "He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed Shrapnel") - with pauses, cadences, ritenuti, enjambements, by 13- year-old Alexander Kinson. The old man and the young brilliantly interacted; and the impact was mesmerising.

ALL across the country, November has brought forth musical commemoration of the First World War. The Armed Man was also revived, with other atmospheric Karl Jenkins works, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham; in Thirsk by the North Yorkshire Chorus; and in Shropshire in Housman's church, St Laurence's, Ludlow, by Ludlow Choral Society.

In Cheshire, Jenkins's The Peacemakers was sung by Nantwich Choral Society at St Mary's; while Altrincham Choral Society introduced the oratorio The Poppies Blow, based on Great War poets by its president, the composer Roger Shelmerdine, and also his tribute to a fellow composer, Requiem for George Butterworth, dedicated to the Laurence Singers of Cheadle Hulme.

In Stafford, Stone Choral Society revived the Requiem, first heard in Lichfield Cathedral, by the former County Music Director and the choir's assistant conductor Stuart Johnson, which incorporates several Salvation Army hymns. At their concert "Requiem - For the Fallen", the Arcadian Singers of Oxford under Jacob Ewens included the world premières of Laurence Armstrong Hughes's new English Requiem, setting psalms alongside less known Great War poems, including an alto solo, Ivor Gurney's Ypres poem "Mist on Meadows"; and also Hughes's new Gurney song cycle, Severn and Somme, for tenor, oboe, and harp, in Keble College Chapel.

A third world première of that evening was David Allen's setting of "In Flanders Fields", by Lt. Col. John McCrae: "We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders Fields." And also in Oxfordshire, at their poppy-appeal concert "In Memoriam - Lest We Forget", the Aliquando Chamber Choir of Henley-on-Thames gave, alongside Cherubini's rarely heard Requiem in C minor, the première of a Patrick Hawes commission: a setting for soprano solo (Meryl Davies), choir, and strings of an unfinished Wilfred Owen poem, "I know the music": "The orchestral noises of October nights Blowing symphonetic storms Of startled clarions". This was in St Mary's Church, under the composer's direction.

Jonathan Dove's moving, large-scale new work For An Unknown Soldier, for tenor solo, adult and children's choir, and chamber orchestra, setting nine poems about the tragedy of war, including Owen and Gurney, had its world première in Portsmouth Cathedral and London première at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, with combined choirs led by the Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir and the London Mozart Players, conducted by Nicholas Cleobury.

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