THE particular interest of the concert by the Hertfordshire Chorus, with the London Orchestra da Camera, in St Albans Cathedral last month was a performance — supposedly the first since 1921 (but see below) — of Psalm 130, De Profundis, written for the 1891 Hereford Festival by Hubert Parry.
On that occasion, the composer conducted “a production of very remarkable merit” which “will assuredly come to be received as a masterpiece . . . [and] remembered as one of the chief events of the Festival”, to quote a contemporary review. And, indeed, it did receive further performances, beginning with one at the following year’s Leeds Festival. It was heard again at the Three Choirs Festival in 1905, and Hugh Allen conducted it at Oxford in 1922.
But, after the First World War — and Parry’s death in October 1918 — his music was decidedly out of favour, apart from Jerusalem, Blest Pair of Sirens, and I was glad. In the latter part of the 20th century, there was a welcome revival, concentrating more on the symphonies, chamber music, and solo songs — now widely available on record — and in 2019 a performance of the oratorio Judith — followed by a recording — was given at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by William Vann.
The choir on that occasion was the Crouch End Festival Chorus, prepared by its regular conductor, David Temple, whose interest was sufficiently stirred to investigate other neglected works by Parry and to programme De Profundis with his “other” choir, the Hertfordshire Chorus, for this concert in St Albans on 26 February.
Scored for solo soprano (Sarah Fox), 12-part choir in various combinations (three four-part choirs, two six-part, and one 12-part) and orchestra, De Profundis is not a work to be undertaken lightly, owing to its scale. But it is relatively short (about 25 minutes), allowing Parry to express himself concisely, avoiding the long-windedness to which several of his oratorios (including Judith) can easily succumb.
When the BBC celebrated Parry’s centenary in 1948, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote to Sir Adrian Boult: “It seems to me a scandal that during the Parry celebrations his finest work, De Profundis, should not be done. I wrote to Atkins of Worcester about it. He says it is beyond them. Obviously it is a job for the BBC. Please insist on its being done, and soon.”
Boult did conduct it, in April 1949, on the Third Programme, with the Sale and District Musical Society and the BBC Northern Orchestra. It had previously been broadcast in the BBC Midland Region from Birmingham in February 1939, conducted by Walter Stanton; and Boult conducted it again, this time with the Sheffield Philharmonic Choir, on air in July 1960. But past hearings have been rare enough to make this revival more than welcome.
Is it Parry’s finest work? It may with confidence be claimed to be his finest extended choral work: it comprises three choruses separated by two soprano arias (with the soloist joining the chorus at the end). Parry’s mastery of this large canvas is in no doubt: 12 real parts and an independent orchestral accompaniment (not merely a mirror of the voices). But the musical imagination is remarkable, with at times startling modulations, challenging rhythms, and effective instrumentation; even the obligatory fugue in the last movement manages to sound refreshingly unacademic.
If the reverberant Abbey acoustic tended to obscure the words and cause the orchestra to overwhelm the singers, this was no fault of the performers. The Hertfordshire Chorus is a versatile and highly experienced choir, which can fill a cathedral with sound or produce the most delicate pianissimos; and one could not have imagined a better soprano than Sarah Fox, from her navigating of the melismata in “A custodia matutina” to the stunning B flats (and one B natural) soaring above the choir near the end.
The concert began with The Black Knight, Elgar’s early “symphony for chorus and orchestra”, written between 1889 and 1893, and ended with the ubiquitous I was glad, set by Parry for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 and resplendent in the acoustic of St Albans Abbey.