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Radio review: Leicester Bach Choir

13 July 2018

Roderic Dunnett on rarely revived choral music in Leicester


ONE of the strengths of the Leicester Bach Choir, as its conductor, Richard Laing, explained, is to be prepared to explore repertoire that lies outside the ordinary. While it is well accustomed to performing mainstream works, it makes a point of venturing beyond the merely traditional.

This involves additional work from the chorus: rare new material has to be learned, and meticulously rehearsed. Attentiveness to tuning, to the text and enunciation, to rhythmic precision, and to stylistic elements, all have to be redoubled and captured afresh. It requires not just formal insight from the conductor, and as here, the accompanist, but also a special discipline and determination, indeed professionalism, is required of the choir.

Leicester’s choice of unusual works to celebrate its 90th anniversary at the strikingly Italianate St James the Greater looked fascinating indeed. C. V. Stanford’s The Princess, a set of “vocal quartets”, settings of Tennyson, initially depicts a married couple (“As through the land at eve we went . . .”) who visit the grave of their dead child. But there is much more. The work falls into nine sections, all verbally contrasted. The lilting “Sweet and low”, the bold “The splendour falls on castle walls” (more memorably set by Benjamin Britten), each revealed, to a degree, a different character from choir and conductor.

The expressive way in which the bass line initiates key changes, and the delicate way in which the men supported the even finer upper voices, the two often offsetting each other vividly, was impressive. So were the alluring piano round-offs or envois (from the inspiring accompanist, Jennifer Carter), the surges and build-ups in the second section, and the clever touches of staccato in the energised third. This was an ably rehearsed choir whose members had done careful homework.

There was much more, if not always from the composer, from the choir at least: a hint of chromaticism launching Tennyson’s “Tears, idle tears”; some particularly poignant pauses, and a well-effected, sudden crescendo in the same poem; a magical rippling sequence from the women’s voices, and even more impressive staccato, in “O swallow, swallow”, a pondering on the brevity of life and enduring power of love; and a well-engineered buoyancy in the martial next section, preceding the cortège of the bereft Princess Ida’s martyred warrior love (“Home they brought her warrior dead”), characterised by a finely expressive legato nursed from his singers by Richard Laing.

“Our enemies have fallen”, much of it forte or fortissimo, exemplified the crucial excellence of the Leicester choir’s enunciation. High sopranos late in this section, as elsewhere, were enchanting; and the glorious fade-down of the last bars (“Ask me no more: what answer should I give? I love not hollow cheek or faded eye”) was achieved with great delicacy.

So was there a problem? Well, yes, there were two. First, the selection of just nine sections from a narrative tale that Tennyson expressed in a swath of continuous text has a charm, but completely wrecks the narrative power. The military bits at the end seem to bear little or no relation to the delicate imagery that precedes them.

Second, and more importantly, Stanford, a composer not without great powers of invention (his Requiem dates from this period, the later 1890s), shows little or no imagination here. The whole piece is cast in a simplistic diatonic language, varying little and with a harmonic (rather than contrapuntal) handling that does his chorus little credit. The musical language is, regrettably, unremittingly dull.

HEAVEN forfend that one should have to venture a similar opinion about the Stanford pupil Hamish MacCunn’s The Wreck of the Hesperus, likewise a daring discovery by the Leicester forces, a setting of Longfellow which was first heard at the Coliseum theatre in 1905. But some of the same misgivings do apply. The choir provided some perfect unison for the start, and indeed MacCunn does succeed in generating real movement: here a sea-shanty feel, later a vividness that called to mind Schubert’s “Erlkönig”.

As the storm-tossed drama alerts those on land (“O father! I hear the church-bells ring. . . O father! I hear the sound of guns. . . O father! I see a gleaming light!”) the sense of urgency is powerful. MacCunn saves his most Wagnerian moment for “And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave. . .” The chorus’s enunciation, as in the Stanford, was beautifully lucid, and their consonants were consistently top notch (“dark . . . drear”, “sleet . . . snow”, “a sheeted ghost”); and the explosive later stanzas, the sinking chromatics, the passing Tristanesque chords, and the skittering passages for the piano were certainly exciting and highly proficient.

The Wreck of the Hesperus is a narrative poem, and perhaps any drawbacks derive from this. But its helter-skelter nature (it is, in fact, quite brief) shear it of any real scope for bringing expression to the words. One felt, indeed, with the text, “Christ save us all from a death like this, On the reef of Norman’s Woe!” (a notorious rock off Massachusetts).

The real compositional excitement came from two part-songs by Elgar, sung with beautiful sensitivity; from three well-known violin solos by Elgar, performed exquisitely by Shulah Oliver with Simon Marlow accompanying; and Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Oliver’s inspired artistry rendered the lucid piano accompaniment here no disadvantage at all.

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