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Bruckner and Nebuchadnezzar in Maidstone  

22 December 2016

Roderic Dunnett hears a bold programme of rarely tackled pieces


IT IS disappointing that the more substantial of Bruckner’s choral works so rarely receive an out­ing. His shorter anthems, like the graduals Locus iste and Os justi, or the antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus, have a rightful place in many choirs’ repertoire. Of his Psalm settings, a late Psalm 150 is sometimes unearthed. A character­ful and expressive early Requiem is almost totally ignored. Sundry other sacred pieces are cruelly passed by.

His superb Te Deum is a marvel of vigorous word-setting, occa­sion­­ally done. Of Bruckner’s Masses, No. 2 in E minor is some­times heard, partly because it in­­volves reduced forces of woodwind and brass. No. 1 (D minor) re­­ceives few or no outings at all (and several others predate even that).

His most magnificent achieve­ment, however, symphonic in scale and bounding with energy, is the Mass No. 3 in F minor, which has just been performed by the Sutton Valence Choral Society in All Saints’, Maidstone. This concert was all the more unusual for the inclusion of a real rarity, George Dyson’s cantata Nebuchadnezzar.

Bruckner pulls out all the stops in the F-minor, which opens with a Lisztian, weeping descent in the orchestra, and sensitively sung Kyries, the last linked by an ex­quis­­ite passage of pianissimo string playing. The Gloria is enhanced by a finely judged alternation of fast and slow pas­sages, hence a confidentiality to “et in terra pax” contrasting with the full-blooded excitement of “Glorifi­camus te”, the pleading misereres, and an astonishing piano for “in gloria Dei patris”, and the hugely dramatic Amens.

The Credo launches with one of the most thrilling openings of any romantic mass, yielding to the mysterious feel of “et invisi­bilium”. The outstanding feature here is the gorgeously moving, high-placed tenor solo (Clifford Lister) for the “incarnatus”, balanced by a nobly lugubrious bass solo for the “Crucifixus” (Colin Campbell, equally memor­able). (The chorus, so splendidly assured elsewhere, felt just a little tentative at this point.) The “Et resurrexit” was thrilling: Bruckner makes the music virtually dance here, highly effectively, while the final fugue, with skittering brass, exploded with joy.

Both sets of Hosannas, dashed off by brilliant soprano (Helen Bailey) and tenor solos, were thrill­­ing, but the greatest enchant­ment came from a delightful melody in the cellos for the Benedictus. The orchestral and choral shifts of key Bruckner unexpectedly engineers were beautifully achieved, and an oboe solo early in the work and a superb flute obbligato near the end were among the numerous highlights of good singing and fine playing.

The orchestra, the Beresford Sinfonia, under the conductor Bryan Gipps, worked wonders in keeping an intensity to fuel Nebuchadnezzar. Dyson’s work, composed in four sections for the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester in 1935, draws on Daniel 3 to tell the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and their triumph over the burning fiery furnace.

Both the opening and certain other energised passages in the music call to mind Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. One difference is that Dyson uses an interesting kind of choral recitative to narrate much of the story: an effect that, together with some pizzicato chorus singing early on, the choir, timed to perfection, acquitted itself admirably. A solo horn introduces the tenor Herald, which with threatening orchestra introduces the King’s injunction.

A male-voice chorus of Chaldeans, who spill the beans about the three Jewish advisers’ refusal to obey, and the solo baritone who, over cellos, basses, and horns, provides the King’s miffed response, preceded a rich dramatic outburst by full chorus, with brass interludes and drum­ming underlay. Dyson’s drama is perhaps not quite of the Walton standard, but it has its own power. Even more involving is the gentle rapture as solo tenor and female choir, representing the courageous trio, sing praises to the Lord in a kind of gentle Benedicite.

Nebuchadnezzar’s observation “Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt” yielded some finely contrived orchestration; and his instant conversion, “Blessed be the God who hath sent his angel,” suggested echoes of Vaughan Williams. The final passage is a many-versed setting of the Benedicite proper (the sopranos were electrifying at “O every shower and dew”).

Some works that reach their climax in a simple hymn or psalm passage can lose a modicum of impact, but this seemed to work reasonably well. A little more explosive fire of the Bruckner kind might have enlivened this per­form­­ance further, but the assaying of two such relatively rare works was a noble undertaking, and one can only applaud the vigour and daring of this bold choral society and its worthwhile programming.

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