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Spirited work of a forgotten mid-Victorian  

15 July 2016

Roderic Dunnett hears a case well made

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EVERY now and again, the name of a composer too long neglected resurfaces, thanks to determined championing by a choir, ensemble, or imaginative conductor.

More often than not, it is a com­poser from the medieval or Baroque periods. But sometimes the restored musical figure dates from a more recent era.

That applies to Richard Dawre (1847-81), a musician of short lifetime but obvious talent and range, whose unearthing we owe to William McVicker, Director of Music at St Barnabas’s, Dulwich, in south London, and his unauditioned and yet strikingly versatile and polished church choir.

Dawre’s was a short life. He died after fall at a Franciscan Convent in Peckham in 1881, perhaps not long after arriving in Dulwich. As McVicker’s invaluable notes tell us, he was born in Bristol, and spent a proportion of his career as an organist and teacher in Exeter. For a decade, his name disappears from the records, but by 1881 he had resurfaced as organist of St Peter’s, Dulwich, the neighbouring parish to St Barnabas’s.

This is evident from one of the livelier pieces that survive, his “March Jubilant”, which identifies him as such in gold-leaf decoration on the front page.

Several of the contributions to this vigorous and enjoyable concert celebrating Dawre were for key­board, and on the Kenneth Tickell organ that replaced the instrument destroyed in the 1992 fire at St Barnabas’s — which, however, has yielded one of the finest and most imaginative modern buildings in the capital. The organist Riccardo Bonci confirmed McVicker’s view that the “March Jubilant” is “a typical, thoroughly enjoyable Victorian occasional piece, especially apt for weddings”.

Three of the four Dawre pieces for piano solo, played from mem­ory with confidence and flair by the Armenian-born Tigran Grigoryan, dub themselves morceaux — light pieces of entertainment, fashion­able in their day, but in fact here quite substantial. At times one might easily be listening to one of the weightier pieces by Chopin or, less obviously, Schumann. It was partly thanks to Grigoryan’s com­mand­ing playing and eloquent def­inition that what might have seemed a slightly lightweight pro­gramme emerged as much more substantial.

One or two nicely sung solo items enhanced the feeling of fun: this concert was designed not to make some excessive case for Dawre’s music from the few pieces we have, but to enable his name at least to be unearthed and restored to public awareness.

He is a spirited composer, very much a mid-Victorian in musical character. That was obvious from the energetic opening item, a Festival Jubilate Deo (in F major), extrovert in manner, thoughtful in modulation, and certainly assured in design. The church choir — an exciting large ensemble, marvel­lously assured and impressively unified, and whose extraordinary calibre would emerge in the last work — here yielded up the first of a notable team of soloists whose calibre never ceased to amaze me, the tenor Bill Comerford.

But it was in the main work, The Lion of Judah, a well-crafted Christ­mas oratorio mainly by Dawre but finished by others, presumably soon after his death, that this beauti­fully rehearsed choir and its well-refined soloists came into their own. The “March Mil­itant” brought it splendidly to life.

Here was a work rich in solos — duets and quartets as well — which offered a chance for numerous mem­bers of the choir to make their individual contribution. After the choir’s assured “We sing Emman­uel” came another full-bodied move­­ment, “Oh, be not dismayed.” A lovely, Handel-like passage in two parts led to a beautiful soprano solo at “Mary’s Joy”. The variety of Dawre’s settings, with opportun­ities galore for individuals to shine, confirmed McVicker’s instinct that this might indeed be an ideal work for the St Barnabas’s forces, whose eloquence and expression made them a match for more sophistic­ated ensembles.

Not a solo was found wanting. A young tenor, for instance, contrib­uted a sequence of great delicacy at “Thrice Blessed Lord”; and “Beth­any” and “Kedron” seemed to pro­duce a lightly dancing effect, quite distinct from what preceded. “The Crucifixion” had a perhaps surpris­ing serenity initially, and the choral singing was utterly enchant­ing, just as a vibrant Easter Hymn (”Jesus Christ is risen today”) made way for an almost sensual and re­­flective sextet (”Then live each day”).

The penultimate “The Lion of Judah” was so forceful and reward­ing, a finale in itself, that I think we could have done without the Handel echoes of the conclusion.

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