Music review: Sir Hubert Parry to be celebrated in his centenary year

by
25 May 2018

Roderic Dunnett joins a celebration of the teacher and his pupils

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THE centenary of Sir Hubert Parry’s death falls on 7 October. He was not only a celebrated composer, but one of the most admired, supportive, and charismatic teachers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The centenary has been celebrated with a four-day festival, “Parry and his Pupils”, in Gloucester and at Highnam, the manor house where the composer grew up. There, his father, Thomas Gambier Parry, was responsible for one of the most remarkable, sumptuously frescoed ecclesiastical buildings, inspired by Italian Renaissance art, the adjacent Church of the Holy Innocents.

Events included a concert by the St Cecilia Singers, embracing Parry’s deeply affecting a cappella sequence Songs of Farewell. These settings of Vaughan, Donne, Campion, and others also provided the material for a Parry tribute by several other choirs: the Durham Singers; the St Albans Chamber Choir (who also performed the rare Messe de Requiem by the French composer Alfred Desenclos); the Cantilena Choir, Cambridge; the Kingfisher Chorale, in Leicester; and the Portsmouth Baroque Choir. On 2 June, Lichfield Cathedral will mount a complete concert in Parry’s memory.

Two motets (and “I was Glad”) were included by the Orpheus Singers at Ventnor and Cowes, on the Isle of White. Perhaps the most original achievement has been that of the Hampton Choral Society (of Twickenham), who undertook a brief and very seldom heard work by Parry, The Glories of Our Blood and State, previously recorded on Chandos.

The choir on that recording is the BBC National Chorus of Wales, whose chorus master is Adrian Partington. As director of the Gloucester Choral Society, he conducted the main event in the excitingly planned and riveting “Parry and his Pupils”.

The programme was bookended by two better-known Parry works, “I was glad” and “Jerusalem”, presented refreshingly and gratifyingly in Elgar’s orchestration. The first of these was sung with such fervour and explosive force that the acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral gave it a quite astonishing directness. It positively soared. This was as good and affecting a performance as one could hope to encounter anywhere.

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The choir excelled again in John Ireland’s anthem “Greater Love Hath No Man”, whose beauty partly stems from the exquisite texts (John, Peter, Corinthians, Romans, and the Song of Solomon), and which Ireland himself orchestrated after the First World War. The texts are proclamatory: “Ye are washed, ye are sanctified. . . Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood. . .”

There was an issue here. The Philharmonia Orchestra, enriched by such superb players, somewhat overdid the decibels. The choir (and the words) were to a degree swamped. Indeed, one wondered whether Ireland had made the right decision in lending such a beautiful text the weight of full orchestra. Perhaps less is more.

Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia was first heard in Gloucester Cathedral in September 1910. Hence its inclusion at this feast felt gorgeously apt. True, the delicate quartet moments seemed to get a little lost under some over-urgent string tutti. Yet one detail shone out: the magical, captivating viola solos, by Yukiko Ogura, which somehow set everything else beautifully in context.

The main Parry work was Ode on the Nativity, his last full-length cantata, first performed publicly in 1912 at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival. One merit is that, being a Christmas piece, it has a jauntiness about it which was addressed with relish by choir and orchestra alike under Partington.

The vocal element had several fine touches: the gentle, rocking, and almost pastoral opening; the eloquent soprano solos (Eleanor Dennis), sometimes rocking (verse 3), periodically riding, and even soaring, over the chorus, as in the oboe-led somewhat Elgarian third stanza (“Sinners be glad and penance do”); some consistently fine mezzo piano contributions, lulling and especially stylish, intoned by the men alone; two glorious, subtle short orchestral interludes prefacing the last two verses, plus a finely achieved attacca from verse 4 to verse 5; and not least, a perfect build-up within the last verse, “Be mirthful and make melody! All Gloria in excelsis cry!”

Yet there were reservations. Parry misses many opportunities for bringing out the finer details of the text, with solo instruments, duets, etc., in the orchestra (and when one emerges, a bass clarinet at the very end, it is patently too little, too late). Instead, too often he prefers thick textures that the orchestra here took as an invitation to overbear.

The beautifully chosen text, a version of a late-medieval poem by William Dunbar (c.1460-1530), cries out, surely, for subtler treatment: a light brush, and delicate birdsong at “Celestial fowls in the air, Sing with you notes upon height.”

Instead of exquisite, well-calibrated woodwind, the composer prefers a somewhat galumphing approach (it is this that the gentle male chorus sections contrast with so splendidly). Some of the imitative writing is a bit weak, almost dutiful. “The blessed fruit That rose up from the rose Mary” was everything but tender: think of the light-stepped purity of “I sing of a maiden” by Patrick Hadley. The blazing scoring of the more ponderous extracts here seemed to miss the point.

But this was a feast of not only Parry, but also his pupils. The triumph here for Partington and all his meticulously rehearsed forces was Gustav Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus. Based principally on a gorgeous and buoyant dancing text from the Apocryphal Acts of St John, following a noble statement (some superb deep Philharmonia brass) of the two famous hymns by Venantius Fortunatus of Poitiers (530 to c.609), Vexilla regis prodeunt and Pange lingua, it launches into “Glory to Thee, Father!”, seven exclamatory fragments of praise comparable to the ecstasy of Psalm 150, and then an astonishing vital sequence, a kind of continual outburst, culminating in “Divine Grace is dancing; The Holy Twelve dance with us; All things join in the dance!”

This is the sort of passage which the late Sir John Tavener, with his devotion to Orthodox texts, might have relished. The singing here, with the cathedral nave and aisles working their acoustic wonders, and choirs old and young beautifully finessed, could scarcely be bettered, the orchestra added its occasional echoes of The Planets, not least in the final chromatic choral build-up and the final celebratory cries, as vivid as a package of alleluias. This performance was an exciting achievement.

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