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Music review: Mass in E flat by Amy Beach (Spires Philharmonic, Coventry)

26 May 2023

Roderic Dunnett hears a neglected Mass by an American woman


HOW one applauds choirs with the courage to promote important repertoire that lies outside the norm!

The Spires Philharmonic chorus and orchestra just a few years ago revived, distinctively, the Mass in D by Dame Ethel Smyth, a formidable work indebted to Beethoven’s majestic setting in the same key.

Now, the Spires have brought to fruition probably the British première of the Grand Mass in E flat by the first significant and productive American woman composer, Amy Beach, at the spacious, acoustically satisfying Central Hall in Coventry. The performing edition, prepared by the Pennsylvanian scholar Dr Paula Ring Zerkle, proved its worth at every stage.

Not only did the performance draw a very large audience, disproving that presenting rarities heralds a financial disaster: it equally demonstrated the superb quality that can reward all who risk the price of a ticket.

The work, begun when Beach (1867-1944) was only 19, and receiving its first public performance in 1892, is another neglected masterpiece. It has freshness, originality, vigour, and pathos, and needs a shrewd conductor of unusual good judgement to ease its endlessly varied detail to the fore, mastering both a (here immensely attentive, musically intelligent) choir and a substantial orchestra. The latter had just given as bracing a performance of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony — composed a year later — as one could hope for. Indeed, by inspired balancing, it unveiled detail that I had never heard before, even in Prague.

Their penetrating conductor for eight years is Jack Lovell-Huckle, who has earned accolades working at the top level. His craftsmanship, giving fresh leads to his singers in (to them) a “new” work, stood out at every point. The orchestra, by intensive preparation, knew the score backwards.

The a cappella opening of the Kyries was almost Elgarian in demeanour, yet never derivative. Much else was daringly original: frequent use of solo woodwind (finely played, especially cor anglais (Chloe Peterson) — a lovely similarity, yet preceding Dvořáks Largo); Beach’s deployment of two parts (upper/lower), the tuning of a high order; significant use of trumpet (Martin Gardner, Laura Carvell) to herald full-choir entrances; or vocal solos that seemed as enthralling as operatic arias.

The incredible variety owed much to the conductor’s evocation of shading as well as multiple pacings, which showed off the entire work to deeply satisfying effect. Hence the impact of a subtle, exceptionally prolonged, leisurely and intensely alluring treatment, embracing both solo quartet and chorus, of the Baroque-quality “Miserere” in the Gloria. The Agnus Dei unfolded with equally measured slow pacing, the harp, in particular, not just joining, but audibly glowing amid, the textures.

Again in the Gloria, the “Quoniam”, featuring one of many astonishing, tight little motifs that Beach engages, was as sprightly as some later formulae, using a device that she employs quite often: choral parts entering in the order tenor-bass-alto-soprano. Exploding crescendos (notably in the Credo) were offset by vastly skilled sudden diminuendos: not easy.

The soloists whom the Spires had gathered were of an equally high order. I might point out, perhaps, a wonderful bass solo (Peter Lidbetter) lead to full quartet in the Benedictus; or the experienced mezzo, Gaynor Keeble, who, in one extended solo passage, gave the finest performance that I have ever heard her deliver.

Dvořák, Bruckner, Verdi, Mascagni — all of those come to mind, but never slavishly, in Amy Beach’s spectacular and, here, marvellously successful setting of the Mass. Let us hope that more choral societies (as a few do, commendably) pick up the baton and encompass rare repertoire of this sensational kind.

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