Music review: Church universities raise the roof

23 March 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears Berlioz and spirituals


UNDER ideal circumstances, to carry off a full-scale performance of Berlioz’s Requiem, or Grande Messe des Morts, requires greater choral and orchestral forces than any of his other works, even the massive Te Deum. In this country, it is not often that ensembles beyond the famous London — or, say, Manchester or Edinburgh — choirs dare such a gigantic undertaking. There is also the risk, once the forces are assembled, that the result can be overbearing.

Nevertheless, it can be done. Step forth, the Cathedrals Group Choirs Festival, which draws together some dozen choirs of universities with church foundations. It was hosted this year in fine style by Newman University, Birmingham. The singers were abetted by a vastly enlarged Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, and the performance easily reached the best professional standards.

It is tempting to say that it “lifted the roof”; for the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, has its own awesome acoustic devices. Weighty mechanical upper doors open on to a vast echo chamber, a space almost one third as large as the auditorium itself, which creates a maelstrom of sound which amplifies the impact and can create a kind of sonic boom, the sound heaving around and issuing forth.

That the echo-chamber accesses were flung wide on this occasion was a courageous decision. Even in fully professional events, this rarely occurs. Yet so far from swamping the effect, or producing outlandish, domineering results, it contributed, thanks to Derek Wroughton’s masterly conducting, to an enriched but endlessly varied overall sound. The forces gelled with balance and subtlety, and the louder passages proved all the more expressive rather than ear-battering.

Remarkably, the gaping echo chambers in no way obtruded on or spoilt the music that preceded the Berlioz. This consisted of short offerings from each individual choir: spirituals, contemporary, classical, all of some merit, but some, I felt, outstanding.


The opening spiritual, “Goin’ home to God”, sung by York St John University, displayed perfect balance, great restraint, and the best matching blend of all the offerings, as well as the first of several affecting soprano solos, as also witnessed later in “I will light a candle” by Will Todd (sung by Winchester Music Centre).

The most pleasing clarity of all, with a gratifying individuality to the women’s voices, and miraculously articulate consonants from all, came from St Mary’s University, Twickenham, in an Agnus Dei by the German composer Alwin Schronen. A particularly good choice was “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” This was in an arrangement by Richard Allain, with vivid soprano solo, effective choir ostinato, and some beautifully delicate, mysterious touches, offered by Liverpool Hope University.

But, while the University of Chichester brought deeply affecting sensitivity and tenderness to Stanford’s Justorum animae, and flair and uplift to the same composer’s Coelos Ascendit, the stylish authenticity of the University of Cumbria’s “Lean on Me”, sung with utter confidence and delicacy, and a real and apt sensitivity to the work’s structure, seemed to me to carry off the laurels.

The opening of the Berlioz, with its unexpected use of staccato and urgently pounded repetitions of “Et lux perpetua”, plus latterly intelligently sustained supporting low basses, boded well. By contrast, the Dies Irae is almost gentle, brooding.

The women’s voices coped admirably here, as often later, too, in higher-placed passages. But with “Tuba mirum” the outburst of brass, almost 50 strong and posted in four groups round the hall, was massive. Ominous and assailing in their proclamation of the Day of Judgement (“Judicanti responsura”), they called to mind, in this exciting fusion of choir and orchestra, the most explosive music summoned up to celebrate the French Revolution some decades earlier.

It was the men’s voices — not surprisingly, these animated youthful forces included an unusual number of admirable young tenors — who captured the forlorn feel, with notable accompanying touches from woodwind and lower strings, in the short section “Quid sum miser?”

Rex tremendae”, which is so cataclysmic in Verdi’s and even Mozart’s settings, Berlioz, surprisingly, builds only gradually. Here the balance of all voices was impressive, with a particularly well-effected growth in intensity at “Confutatis”. Especially effective was the poignant recurring “Voca me”, reiterated especially by the sopranos, at a carefully modulated piano.

A well-sustained legato, tricky to carry off, followed the quasi-fugal start of “Quarens me”. Sopranos and basses, not for the only time, offset one another with notable finesse. Key to the impact here, in the magnificently sustained legato of the Offertorium, and the subtle woodwind of the “Hostias”, was the pacing by Derek Wroughton. It was thanks to him (Newman’s commanding Director of Music) that an unusual variety, a firm avoidance of irritation or excess, and an inspiring sense of control and natural evolution was achieved. Structually, this performance was a triumph.

The surprise movement, compared with others’ settings, is the “Lacrymosa”, in the Dies Irae: long drawn-out, the screeching orchestra evoking a sense of terror and danger, a kind of bitter, plodding ostinato splendidly thundered out by chorus, offset by intermittent brass, the effect here utterly resplendent.

Berlioz brings in his soloist, a tenor (Stephen Mills), in the penultimate section, the Sanctus: again finely paced, it anticipates Bruckner’s great F-minor Mass, just as the Agnus Dei is one of two points where Berlioz brings unexpected echoes of Beethoven.

But the parallels that most suggest themselves are three of Berlioz’s own works: the stupendously emotive Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, composed to celebrate the same anti-Bonapartist revolution as the Grande Messe; the impassioned, harrowing Cassandra scenes of the much later Les Troyens; and, naturally, the Te Deum. This exciting performance, not merely enthusiastic but eminently stylish, paraded elements of all three. The chorus and orchestra triumphed, and, for the audience, it proved an unbelievably thrilling experience.

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