A LITTLE more than 100 years old, Wimbledon Choral Society is one of the most substantial — and formidable — choirs in London. Arrayed in the Royal Festival Hall for a recent performance, it made an impressive sight.
It enjoys strong leadership from Neil Ferris, who also leads the BBC Symphony Chorus. His handling of such a vigorous and sophisticated choral ensemble is crucial to unfolding its most salient aspects: not just its dynamic range, but its dynamism, rhythmic adroitness, untarnished competence, intensity, and, as it proved, in contemporary repertoire, daring.
Its concert included a newly commissioned, highly original, and rivetingly designed Requiem Mass. Although the choir’s centenary was four years ago, it commissioned a new work soon after. It needed be both manageable and challenging, and make good use of the vigour, individuality, and vitality that lend colour and excitement to the choir’s performances.
But who should compose it? Cecilia McDowall was an inspired choice. Over the past decade, she has penned more than 50 sacred works: settings of Marian texts, beautifully crafted carols, Evening Services, Preces and Responses, and vividly imagined psalm settings.
St Francis, St Bernard, St Columba, St Thomas Aquinas (in memory of the victims of the Nepalese earthquake), Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, the novelist Christie Dickason (a favourite), and the poet Benjamin Zephaniah have all fallen within her purview. McDowall’s inspiration in choosing her words is matched by her insight in getting beneath the skin of each text.
For Wimbledon Choral Society, she delivered, as Britten did by invoking Wilfred Owen, a Requiem with a difference. Amid a slightly curtailed Latin liturgical text, she has interspersed, most imaginatively, somewhat mysterious passages (in translation) from Leonardo da Vinci, the quincentenary of whose death (on 2 May 1519) this event marked.
In this work, a Da Vinci Requiem, she allocates the Leonardo passages (from varied sources) mainly to a pair of soloists: soprano and bass. Here, they were Kate Royal and Roderick Williams, whose magnetising power equalled the strange, sometimes abstract and elusive, intensity of the texts.
This is McDowall’s longest choral work to date: she composed a half-hour Stabat Mater in 2004. She always writes with scrupulous care for her forces, seeking to write approachably, but without patronising them.
There was nothing trite, or lacking in invention, in this new work. The musical and emotional contrasts were tangible. The orchestral playing was a non-stop treat. At the outset, the glowering darkness of the Philharmonia’s woodwind, taken up by rich textures in the chorus, with a periodic rocking motion, and the alternation, then unifying, of the soloists, introducing a fragment from Leonardo (“Shadow is not the absence of light; merely the obstruction of luminous rays by an opaque body”) — all had a mesmerising effect.
The shadows remained: a dark tympani thrumming underlay the soprano soloist’s pleading invocation, summoning up a setting of a poem in tribute to Leonardo — “For Our Lady of the Rocks, by Leonard da Vinci” — by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (“Mother, is this the darkness of the end, the Shadow of Death?”), the soprano achingly reaching high up, until wailing woodwind and threatening horns yield to a calming, unexpected fadeout.
It was notable how the choir tenors and basses, and then the sopranos and altos, shone when McDowall paired them but offset them. She did this quite a lot, to wondrous effect. The next passage of Leonardo, for instance, allocated to the choir, unusually, acquires a seeming religious mantle (“I obey thee, Lord, first because of the love which I ought to bear thee . . .”). The gentle lilting of the accompanying Lacrymosa was heralded by beautifully expressive oboes. The Requiem text is set, deliberately, in some places quite straightforwardly; often this was a marked asset, as here: a measure of poignancy yielding to a somewhat tragic fadeout in choir and then orchestra.
The Sanctus and Benedictus, which McDowall sees as the centrepiece or kernel of the work, unleashes, perhaps not surprisingly, ebullience and vitality. The dancing, high-spirited treatment, dotted with a gentle syncopation, feels as fresh as Copland or Bernstein. The choir joined a vivid xylophone in cascading downwards patterns. The Sanctus comes vividly alive (with an effective attacca or direct link to the Benedictus) right to its thrillingy abrupt end.
The Agnus Dei, prefaced by plainsong, gained much of its effect from lulling repetition: rather craftily, muted trumpets lent an unusual orchestral colouring, and Royal was required to soar magically above. Again the alternation of massed male or female chorus voices proved a well-judged, artful effect: in such passages the choir invariably excelled.
The ensuing Leonardo text is telling: “One sees the supreme instance of humility in the lamb” (indebted more to the artistic format of medieval Bestiaries than to scripture). Here the baritone takes up — evidence, once again, of the variety and contrast which renders this Requiem setting so handsomely crafted — with yet another text: “What thing is sleep? Sleep resembles death.” There is an eeriness here, and a grieving feel. Yet Leonardo, it seems, is prepared to allude to, if not to contemplate, some possibility of an afterlife.
There is a feeling of resolution about the Lux Aeterna, which opens curiously with a tinge of Ravel, whose Piano Concerto had just been played, dazzlingly, by Martin James Bartlett, Young Musician of the Year in 2014. McDowall employs a xylophone — how ingeniously she uses her orchestra — and the soloists, especially baritone, are deployed once again intoning Leonardo over the Latin text (“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward”). An ascending chromatic sequence for the choir brings yet another galvanising mood near the conclusion.
The final departure gives a lucid reminder of just how refined the Philharmonia’s string sections have been throughout. As it was, this Requiem proved a tribute not just to Leonardo, but to the composer, and the flair and imagination of the choir that commissioned it, and poured life into it so admirably and intelligently.