Friday 10 October 2014

Faire is the Heaven - Masterpieces of the English Romantics

Robert King
Naylor, Stanford, Bairstow, Walton, Harris, Britten, Leighton, Howells; Choir of the King's Consort, Robert King; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 8 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Old favourites and rarities in this lovely programme of English Romantic choral music

The King's Consort's concert at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 8 October 2014 was something a little out of the usual line for this period group. Renowned for their recordings of Monteverdi and Purcell, and more recently Parry and Stanford, they presented a concert of music by late 19th and early 20th century English composers. Conducted by Robert King, the Choir of the King's Consort performed unaccompanied sacred music by Naylor, Stanford, Bairstow, Walton, Harris, Britten, Leighton and Howells. The programme mixed works well known to many singers, such as Harris's Faire is the Heaven with lesser known pieces. Much of the repertoire is familiar from regular usage in services, but is seen less frequently in the concert hall.

With over 20 singers on stage, the choir certainly made a goodly sound in the Wigmore Hall. The overall sound quality was admirably firm, with a lovely sense of line (perhaps to be expected in a group which sings a lot of early music). They opened with Vox dicentis: Clama, a large scale setting of text from Isaiah written by Edward Woodall Naylor (1867 - 1934) who worked in Cambridge and wrote a significant body of church music as well as an opera. Vox dicentis: Clama was written in 1911 for King's College, Cambridge. It is a fascinating piece, rather flexibly structured in responding to the text and sometimes difficult to place. Whilst the harmony is often conservative, Naylor's writing can be quite interestingly fluid. It received an admirable performance, with the choir giving full weight to both the drama and the subtler moments.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) wrote his Three Latin Motets in the 1880's and they were dedicated to Alan Gray, his replacement after Stanford left Trinity College, Cambridge. They are now familiar parts of the church and cathedral services, but were initially rejected by the publisher. Justorum animae was performed with great poise and a nice feel for the richness of Stanford's textures. The double choir motet, Coelos ascendit hodie was bright, lively and rather more subtle than some performances I have heard. The lovely six-part Beati quorum via had its richness of texture offset by the purity of line and clarity which the singers brought to it. One of the refreshing fascinations of this whole programme was hearing big Romantic pieces performed by a group which did not make a Big Romantic Sound.

Edward Bairstow (1874 - 1946) was a bluff Yorkshireman who spent most of his life at York Minster, but he didn't write bluff music. His Let all mortal flesh keep silence was a poised and intense piece, with an interesting use of unison octaves creating a sense of real mystery. The dramatic conclusion to the anthem was notable for both the firmness and accuracy of the singing.

William Walton (1902 - 1983) wrote Set me as a seal upon thy heart for the society wedding of Ivor Guest and Lady Mabel Fox-Strangeways in 1938. All well and good, except that Walton was the current boyfriend of Ivor Guest's mother, Lady Wimborne, and Walton was only a year older than the groom. The resulting anthem is one of Walton's finest and here given a performance which pointed up the lovely warm harmonies and there were some fine solos from members of the choir. Walton's anthem Where does the uttered music go was written in 1946 for a memorial service for Henry Wood. It sets a rather rambling poem specially written by John Masefield. The results are a little edgier than Set me as a seal, and many commentators remark on the hints of Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia which had been premiered a few years earlier. Still, it is still a lovely piece and the choir gave us some really ravishing moments.

The first half concluded with Faire is the Heaven, the best known piece by William Harris (1883 - 1973), for many years organist at St George's Chapel, Windsor. A double choir work, setting Edmund Spencer, it is full of Harris's trademark enharmonic key changes and by no means as easy to sing as the result can appear. We heard a beautifully crafted, poised performance which was finely realised and brought a nice clarity to the gorgeous harmony.

After the interval, harmonies got a deal edgier with Benjamin Britten's 1942 Auden setting, A Hymn to St. Cecilia. King and his singers gave the opening section a lovely lightness and clearness, whilst King's steady tempo enabled the singers to bring out the dance-like quality of the music. There was a clarity, and poise, to the relatively slow refrain which contrasted with the dash of the middle sections. Here the music was vividly crisp, with King and his singers relishing the contrast in texture which Britten introduces. The final section was steady yet atmospheric, with a lovely sense of detailed pointing of the text. Again we appreciated the contrasts in texture between the different lines, and the solo moments were finely taken by choir members.

Drop, drop, slow tears comes from a larger work, Crucifixus pro nobis by Kenneth Leighton. I always think of Leighton as a Scottish composer as he taught at Edinburgh University for much of his life, though in fact he was born in Wakefield. His setting of words by Phineas Fletcher (1582 - 1650) is quite austere but with some gorgeous harmony and here was given in a profoundly moving performance. This was followed by Bairstow's small but perfectly formed I sat down under his shadow in which a lyric, flexible tenor line was supported by slow harmony. Whilst Bairstow did develop the textures, the piece kept returning to the tenor line.  William Walton's Drop, drop, slow tears set the same text as the Leighton, but Walton wrote it originally when he was just 15. A lovely and remarkable piece, though I could not necessarily have told you it was by Walton. Finally in this group, another Stanford anthem, I heard a voice from heaven written in the 1880's for the memorial of a colleague. A finely formed piece which rather looked back to Mendelssohn for its inspiration, there was a lovely soprano solo and a fascinating use of soloists as semi-chorus in just the manner of Mendelssohn's motets.

Bring us, O Lord God is another double choir anthem by William Harris, written 34 years after Faire is the Heaven. Bring us, O Lord God has the same richness of harmonic language as the earlier anthem, and the singers brought a lovely warm glow to their performance. They concluded with an anthem by Herbert Howells (1892 - 1983). Take him earth for cherishing was written for the memorial service in Washington a year after the death of President Kennedy. Howells set an evocative poem by Helen Waddell based on the Latin of Prudentius. Whilst Howells is well known for his service music for many English cathedrals (and others, there is a Dallas Service), I have always preferred his unaccompanied music where the richness of his harmony speaks in the voices rather than the organ. The performance of Take him earth for cherishing did not disappoint and brought the evening to a moving conclusion.

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