Music review: choirs across the north-west of England

by
13 April 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears works of thanksgiving

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CHOIRS in the north-west have mounted some courageous rare repertoire recently.

In Bury, Lancashire, Ramsbottom Choral Society presented Haydn’s The Seasons. Puccini’s Messa di Gloria can also be heard in Bury in May. Rheinberger’s Stabat Mater surfaced in Cumbria at Christchurch, Cockermouth, as well as at St Mary’s, Sandbach.

The Messe Solennelle of Langlais was championed by the Alteri Chamber Choir at St James’s, Cheadle. Preston Minster was treated to Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. Works by Adrian Williams and Patrick Hawes joined Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G Minor in Carlisle, and later at St Mary’s, Ambleside.

At St John the Baptist, Knutsford, on 26 May, the Tatton Singers will devote a whole day in May to the Requiem by Cherubini, an undoubted rare masterpiece. Near by in north Cheshire, at St Laurence’s, Frodsham, with its resplendent view across the Mersey, the Frodsham and District Choral Society has introduced not one but two rarities: a Festival Te Deum by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and A Song of Thanksgiving, a celebratory piece by Vaughan Williams which has somehow escaped the mainstream.

The Vaughan Williams work was given an exquisite performance, beautifully calibrated and stylishly varied. Of this, more later. The Sullivan was composed to celebrate (at the Crystal Place) the recovery in 1872 from typhoid of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. (It was from typhoid that his father, Prince Albert, died in 1861.) Though much applauded at the time, it is a gutsy if marginally banal seven-section work, very much of its era. Yet, as this spirited, well-driven choir showed, it is certainly worth a hearing — just as Sullivan’s The Prodigal Son, recorded on Hyperion under Ronald Corp, well deserved to be dusted down.

As a nobly performed fugue at the start showed, there is some debt to Mendelssohn; indeed, the fugue and fughetta writing (“Make them to be numbered with thy saints,” for instance) provided one of the more distinctly buoyant aspects. The optimistic “to thee, Cherubim” features a soprano solo (the splendid Lynne Rogers, beautifully mellow in some earlier Rutter) riding overhead rather as in Mendelssohn’s enrapturing “Hear my prayer”. The splendid choir pianissimo that followed was one of the piece’s most expressive moments, beautifully managed and ably contrasted.

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There was a fine virility and attractive vivacity to “The glorious company of the Apostles”, and the contrasting syncopations in the organ, arguably rather operatic in flavour, accompanying the solo “When thou tookest upon thee”, confirmed Robert Woods, who had excelled in the first half, as one of the undoubted star performers.

Boisterous choir tenors, chased by sopranos, enlivened “We therefore pray thee, help thy servants.” But the highlight of the choir’s always committed performance was arguably the finale: a gorgeous melding in of the theme of Bach’s St Anne Fugue, which had been subtly hinted at the start, and now, perfectly, shrewdly, and restrainedly paced by the conductor, Howard Kane, generated a rich and dazzling climax.

Whether a great work or not (Elgar would not have employed constant repetitions in the same lumbering manner), the Te Deum is unashamedly and justifiably celebratory. With their undoubted verve, vigour, and high spirits, the Frodsham choir made it a spirited experience.

Far more affecting was the unusual Vaughan Williams work, composed in celebration of the end of the Second World War. It uses a narrator, much like his An Oxford Elegy, and that aspect here lent it a wonderful and rewarding atmosphere. Some of the work is hymnic in quality, as one might expect from Vaughan Williams. Often it echoes the emotive spirit of his opera The Pilgrim’s Progress, long in the making and then soon to have its première.

The passages where sopranos intone below the speaker were splendidly conveyed. And the full choir, coasting blithely through the section “Go through the gates”, felt on top form, especially with the upper voices’ fade to pianissimo which concludes the section, matched in reverse by the ascent from serenity to rapture (“But thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise”).

The soprano solo replaced the intended children’s voices in the hymn “Land of our Birth, we pledge to thee”, which in either form must rank as one of VW’s most touching and enticing efforts. The ending was pure magic, gorgeously beguiling and most proficiently carried off.

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