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Festivity with rare Respighi

15 January 2016

Garry Humphreys on a Christmastide feast in a St Albans church


By appointment: a massed choir of almost 300 gave a concert in Buckingham Palace, in the presence of the Prince of Wales, before Christmas to conclude the celebrations of the tercentenary of the Three Choirs Festival

By appointment: a massed choir of almost 300 gave a concert in Buckingham Palace, in the presence of the Prince of Wales, before Christmas to conclude...

CHRISTMAS and the New Year in St Albans provided an embarrassment of riches for the lover of tradition. There was superb music and impressive ceremony at the Abbey, the St Albans Mummers performing around the town on Boxing Day, and a New Year concert at St Peter’s Church on 2 January featuring “professionals having fun” — professional musicians doing what they do best, but dusting off their second, third, or even fourth instruments to contribute to the ensemble in this seasonal celebration.

The guiding spirit is Jeremy White, stalwart of the Covent Garden opera company (who, incidentally, would make a worthy Father Christmas for the St Albans Mummers). The colleagues and friends he gathered around him included such distinguished singers as the tenor Rogers Covey Crump (one of our great Bach Evangelists) and the soprano Deborah Miles Johnson, both of whom contributed wonderful solos during the evening. A total of 36 performers — known collectively as The Pastime Players and Ensemble — were listed in the printed programme.

This concert was somewhat different from the one that I reviewed in 2012 (Arts, 13 January 2012), which concentrated on the words and music of a Baroque and Georgian Christmas. This year, two extremes were juxtaposed: medieval and modern, but showing how modern composers have often taken as their inspiration the texts, forms, and imagery of the Middle Ages. In fact, pieces by Britten, Maxwell Davies, and Robert Sherlaw Johnson sounded uncannily at home rubbing shoulders with Pérotin, Adam de la Halle, and Guillaume de Machaut.

There were several high spots for me. They were a magical performance of “Dormi Jesu”, a duet for soprano and clarinet by Anton Webern, with Deborah Miles Johnson and the clarinettist Edmund White — “[probably] the only twelve-tone carol from the Second Viennese School that you will ever hear”, according to Jeremy White’s programme note — followed by a work previously unknown to me, “Our Lady’s Song” by Christopher Symons, written for the boys of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool, and paraphrasing the 15th-century “Jesu, swete sone dere”. Lovely. It was also good to hear Peter Warlock’s Benedicamus Domino, with a correction to the composer’s text in the Latin refrain.

In the first part of the concert we were also treated to extracts from two dramas: the Second Shepherds’ Play from the Towneley (Wakefield) cycle of Mystery Plays, and Officium Stellae (the Ceremony of the Star) from the 13th-century Rouen Gradual, both presented in costume. It has to be said that these would both have benefited from tighter direction and greater care in the delivery of the spoken text. (Why is it that singers seldom bring the technique that projects their singing voices over large spaces in a concert hall or opera house to similarly assist the clear and audible projection of speech?) But considering that the participants meet only on the day for the preparation of these programmes, the result was highly commendable.

In a different category was what must be a pretty rare performance of Lauda per la Natività del Signore, which ended the programme. It was composed between 1928 and 1930 by Ottorino Respighi, best known for his great orchestral trilogy Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals, each involving a huge orchestra. This is on a quite different scale, with soloists, chorus, and a small instrumental ensemble characterised by oboe, cor anglais and bassoons, those pastoral instruments already familiar from the Pifa in Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the Christmas cantatas and concertos of earlier Italian composers such as Corelli and Scarlatti, or “The Shepherds’ Farewell” from Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ.

Performances are usually given in concert formation, but the composer’s widow, Elsa Respighi, made suggestions for staging the piece, and at St Albans it was presented as a tableau, again in costume. The audience, whose attention had perhaps wandered a little during some earlier parts of the concert, was entranced, and showed its appreciation with long and enthusiastic applause.

The characteristically “cheeky” encore began as a medieval carol but somehow ended up as Merry Xmas, Everybody, Slade’s hit song from 1973, complete with electric guitars. But who could disagree with the words in the refrain, “Everybody’s having fun?”

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