Thursday, 27 June 2013

Holst Singers at the Temple Church

Holst Singers, Stephen Layton
The Holst Singers, conductor Stephen Layton, presented a programme of French music sacred and secular at the Temple Church for the latest Temple Music concert on 26 June 2013. Starting with Francis Poulenc's Un soir de neige written during the Second World War, the choir followed this with Gabriel Faure's Cantique Jean Racine and his Requiem, both accompanied on the organ by Greg Morris, Associate Organist at the Temple Church. The organ has recently been restored, it is a Harrison and Harrison Ltd. instrument originally built in 1927 and installed in the Temple Church in 1954.

Un soir de neige is a setting of four poems by Paul Eluard written by Poulenc at Christmas 1944 in Nazi occupied Paris. Poulenc's four short unaccompanied pieces evoke quite brilliantly the biting cold of winter and the despair and misery of life under Nazi occupation. The work is secular, but almost religious in its sombre intensity. Poulenc uses harmony to devastating effect, and his short, jagged climaxes can pull you up short.

The music needs to be sung with precision and intensity, balancing Poulenc's chords perfectly and judging the sometimes unexpected climaxes. The Holst Singers sang with a great flexibility and poise, with a nice feeling for the shape of Poulenc's melodies. The balance and placement of the harmony was well judged, though the occasional attack was not quite perfectly clean. The choir's warm tones were not quite focussed enough to always bring out the real coolness and edge in Poulenc's settings, though moments like the second movement reached a good degree of austere control and the fourth movement concluded with a shattering climax.

Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine introduced the organ, with Morris giving the organ sound a good reedy edge to it at the opening of the work. The tenors sang the opening the melody with a finely spun line, which displayed nice control as the music continued. The performance was notable for the poise and control the choir brought to it, singing with a bright but beautifully well modulated sound.

The organ made a goodly noise at the opening of Faure's Requiem, ushering in a hushed but focussed Requiem aeternam from the choir. The long tenor melody was sung with clean sound and nice line, without a trace of self indulgence. But I felt that Stephen Layton could have introduced more rubato into the tempo, that it lacked flexibility and seemed a little too keen to get on with things.

The opening of the Offertorium was, perhaps, not quite ideally judged by the choir but the dialogue between altos and tenors developed beautiful balance and poise, with the choral climaxes notable for the clarity of sound. The baritone solo was sung by Alex Roose, a member of the choir. He displayed a nice warm baritone with a flexibly free top to is voice. The final choral climax, at the return of de poenis inferni was a wonderful combination of beauty and power.

With just an organ as accompaniment, we might have been in danger of missing out on the subtle array of colours that Faure brought to the work, but in fact Morris achieved a great variety of colours in his accompaniment. The ensemble between choir and organ was generally remarkable given the logistics of having the choir stood at the high alter and the organ part of the way down the nave.

The Sanctus was an effortless dialogue between sopranos and tenors, coming to a very loud climax at the Hosanna in excelsis. Soprano solo, Kate Macoboy, was also a member of the choir and she sang the Pie Jesu with a nice feeling for line and a lovely rich toned voice.

The tenors opened the Agnus Dei with a vibrant sense of line, and a lovely free top to their voices, though the line was not quite as seamless as it could be. The full choral contributions were very powerful, contrasting nicely with the sopranos magical entry at Lux aeterna.

Roose's baritone solo in Libera me was sung with a nice nutty tone and the choir entered with a fine, full throated Tremens factus. The final movement, In Paradisum was magically sung by the sopranos with a finely floated melody which managed to combine words with a sense of line.

By the end of the work I was beginning to get a little restive with Stephen Layton's control of the music. Throughout the piece his tempi were on the brisk side, which is no bad thing as the work can sometimes suffer from self-indulgence. But he seemed to feel the need to keep things moving, and individual moments suffered because he did not introduce the flexibility and small rubatos to support Faure's long limbed melodies. The result was finely sung, but a little stiff.

The choir will be singing the Faure Requiem again on Saturday 13 July at Gloucester Cathedral, further details from the Holst Singers website.

Temple Music's final event for this season is a concert by the choirmen of Temple Church on 9 July, further details from the Temple Music website.

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