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Musical musing on the Baptist

03 November 2017

Roderic Dunnett hears Halifax’s new oratorio


The Baptist’s head?: Halifax

The Baptist’s head?: Halifax

UNDER its music director, John Pryce-Jones, Halifax Choral Society has long had a reputation for daring programming. The quality of its massed chorus, especially when beefed up, as here, by the comparable forces of the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, can easily be compared with its neighbour, the famous Huddersfield Choral Society; and with similar ensembles in Leeds. Founded in 1817, it predates the societies that formed the Three Choirs.

To celebrate its anniversary season of 2017-18, Halifax has not just contented itself with reprising Haydn’s Creation, the first work that it undertook, plus — a typically original West Yorkshire enterprise — a version of Handel’s Messiah, ingeniously arranged for brass band, together with its regular collaborator, the Black Dyke Mills Band from Queensbury (founded, a remarkable coincidence, in 1816); but has also performed and recorded (with amazing spirit and accuracy) a brand-new oratorio. The work’s title, The Holy Face, relates to various traditions about the city’s patron saint, St John the Baptist. In many opinions the town’s name, Halifax, derives from precisely that: the head of St John the Baptist, which some even believe was brought to this spot, is on the town’s coat of arms.

The composer is Philip Wilby, whose work in all types of composition displays meticulous design, coherence, grasp of all genres both modern (including serial) and traditional, employment of insistent, brilliantly developed Leitmotivs, and at times magnificent brazenness, as in several movements here. Founder of Leeds University Liturgical Choir, Wilby has penned many sacred choral works, and his at times gorgeously muted and aptly lulling response to the community of Iona, which he has visited often, is a moving example. But Wilby is best-known for his intricately judged writing for brass bands — for the national band finals at the Royal Albert Hall and other occasions.

In his introductory talk, he was joined by his librettist, the Bristol-based Canon Neville Boundy, who has woven texts from the New Testament with new writing in a seamless way so as to produce a fresh take on the prelude to Jesus’s baptism and the ensuing tussles with Herod and his wife. A passage from Bonhoeffer is transmuted into St John’s imagined reflections in his incarceration: “Bonhoeffer yet unborn still asks with me You who see me face to face Lord who am I? Am I these hands and arms? These eyes or beating heart. . . ?”

With the fire of the opening movement (John 1, more usually set in hushed tones), with its salient brass and pummelling woodwind, one gathers that Wilby is a master of the unexpected. A huge orchestra was deployed, with bells, trombones, and tuba (surely a Wilby favourite).

Several times, as at the crux between this and the next movement, Wilby transits without break (attacca); so the emergence of the tenor solo (Peter Harris, particularly appealing and lucid) felt all the more bracing. For all the fortissimo (there was plenty to come), Wilby writes some of his most mesmerising passages, engaging not just the four soloists, but the choir as well, for a kind of mezzo forte or mezzo piano. In other words, musically, he prises out the interstices, something important and effective in a work whose text is so insightful and delicate.

The rocking, undulating duet for solo upper voices (“Mary arose and sped hastily into the mountains and greeted Elizabeth”, sung by Catrin Pryce-Jones and Emma Stannard), a delicious pastorale, was typical of the range of Wilby’s writing, not least the well-calculated fine detail of his orchestration.

The choir, fresh from the recording, had done its work, and the writing for a representative ensemble from the Yorkshire Youth Choir, ideally designed, drew positive but also poignant results. All came together, even searingly, in a surprisingly scherzoid Magnificat. But the movement that held me most was “You brood of vipers! What diet! What dress! We piped — he stood still; we mourned — he did not weep.” This came from Jerome Knox, a Scottish baritone, whose gorgeous tone was a real find.

To have a resonant Mendelssohn work written in the 1830s and subsequently dedicated to the Halifax Choral Society, Da Israel aus Aegypten zog (“When Israel came out of Egypt”: Psalm 114) as well, even though a slightly functional setting, was treat enough. But for Pryce-Jones to give us Bruckner’s Te Deum as well made a thrilling and dramatic conclusion.


The Holy Face is available with the Halifax Choral Society and brass band (WOS 123).


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