Wednesday, 4 September 2013

England’s Finest: Sarah Connolly and Tenebrae in melancholic mood

Sarah Connolly (c) Peter Warren
Sarah Connolly (c) Peter Warren
Mansion House (the home of the Lord Mayor of the City of London), next door to Wren’s church - St Stephen Walbrook, was the stately venue on Monday 2 Septebmer 2013 for England’s Finest performed by Tenebrae and Sarah Connolly. The evening of melancholic English vocal music, spanning five centuries from Henry Purcell to Judith Bingham, was a sister of a concert in Gloucester cathedral held to raise funds for its new window, designed by Tom Denny, to celebrate the life of composer and war poet Ivor Gurney.

The concert was held in the Egyptian room (in the style of Roman buildings in Egypt – not a cartouche in sight) which is a room to impress with its grand ceiling, statues, and stained glass windows. All this finery leads to some rather good acoustics. Directed by ex-King’s singer Nigel Short, Tenebrae used this responsive acoustic to produce a clear sound, exactly as needed by the intricate Magnificat for Double choir by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Irish-born Stanford was one of the first professors of the Royal College of Music and was also a professor of music at Cambridge University. He is often considered one of the most English composers of Anglican Church music, with a distinctive style, bridging the way between the classicism of Brahms and the more modern Holst, Vaughan Williams, and Gurney – all his students.

The magnificat was composed towards the end of the First World War, commemorating the deaths of many of his students and friends, and also his reconciliation with Hubert Parry. Tenebrae began with a very light touch, but drove on, navigating the echoes of Bach, to a powerfully Renaissance ‘Abraham’.

Written less than six years later, Ivor Gurney’s (1890-1937) Since I believe in God was a sound world away. The poem by Robert Bridges seems to have struck a chord with Gurney’s own experience of life and horrors in the trenches. From the outset this performance was atmospheric and haunting. The ever encroaching dissonance was controlled and unison lines were very much as one voice.

Sarah Connolly and her accompanist James Sherlock continued with Sleep by Gurney - one of four Gurney songs collected and arranged by Gerald Finzi, and By a Bierside – written by Gurney in the trenches, with words by John Masefield and arranged by Herbert Howells. A favourite song of the recital scene, Sarah’s interpretation of Sleep was emotional and desperate and continued this distress through By a Bierside.

Sarah joined Tenebrae for the performance of Judith Bingham’s (born 1952) A walk with Ivor Gurney which was commissioned for the Gloucester concert by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. In it she weaves together several of Gurney’s poems, fusing together atmospheric sliding of mists and murk with howling wind and ghosts of Roman soldiers. This work was more operatic in flavour than the songs, allowing Sarah to show us another dimension to her voice. The staging was also dramatic with the women singing behind Sarah and the men on the balcony at the back of the hall.

The theme of death was even more pronounced with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) Valiant for Truth composed during the Second World War. Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor written in 1922 was simply presented, as were Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) Evening Hymn and Nunc Dimittis set by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). These works framed the despair of Purcell’s Dido’s lament, heart wrenchingly sung by Sarah, with lots of pretty ornamentation and accompanied by James on the Mansion House organ, and The Drowned Lovers by Judith Bingham.

Based on an idea of a forgotten old poem, Judith wrote the words for this after a holiday in Bavaria. She describes it as being a mirror image of The Bluebird, written by Mary Coleridge, where the bird in flight represents the tranquillity of the English countryside. Judith uses the harmonies of Stanford’s setting of The Bluebird, and by reiterating a fragmented ‘blue’ evokes the lake of death as surely Stanford does the happier sky and lake frequented by the bluebird. The light spirit of the The Bluebird provided much needed break in the ongoing catharsis of the evening.

The programming was carefully chosen to showcase the performers, showing Sarah’s skill at opera, songs, and dramatic ornamentation, and Tenebrae’s individual and ensemble excellence, whilst being instructional about Ivor Gurney. He spent the last 15 years of his life in a mental institution - and without the effort of people like Marion Scott, Finzi, Howells, and now Judith, Sarah, Tenebrae, and Gloucester Cathedral (where Gurney used to be the organist), much of his work would be lost.
review by Hilary Glover

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