my top 10 big choral works

January is always a quiet month for performance (although I have one new venture I’ll write about fairly soon) so time to write some more general posts I’ve been saving up for a while.

Singing Mahler 2 near the end of 2017 completed for me what I think of as the canon of generally acknowledged ‘standard’ large choral works. [‘Large’ in the sense of performance time, also that they are works which can be performed by a largish choir, even if they were not written for one.] I now feel I can form an informed view on which are my favourites – the ones that I feel really excited about when I am asked to sing them – because they’re unlikely to be supplanted by anything I’ve never sung. I selected a ‘top 10’ and here they are, alphabetically by composer:

  • Bach, St Matthew Passion
  • Bach, St John Passion
  • Bach, Mass in B minor
  • Beethoven, Missa Solemnis
  • Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts
  • Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius
  • Mahler, Eighth Symphony
  • Mozart, Requiem
  • Rachmaninov, Vespers
  • Verdi, Requiem

I’m pleased by the range of nationalities and traditions represented here. You might ask ‘Where is Messiah?’, and my answer would be ‘Probably at no. 11’. But I can’t put my hand on my heart and say I prefer it to any of the ten on my list. Others which just missed the cut are Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and Brahms’ German Requiem.

Obviously no two singers will agree on this sort of list. If you want to know what I like about these pieces, you may get some idea from reading my accounts of performances of them here. I have sung all of them within the lifetime of the blog, with the exception of Mozart’s Requiem, which I performed just before I started it and which I shall sing again in March.

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Lichfield dedications

For the last few years Lichfield Cathedral Choir have set a themed quiz at Advent and Lent, with a question each day. I have in the past had fun identifying Cathedral choir stalls and music setting the word ‘star’, though I didn’t attempt the organ consoles set in Lent 2018.

Advent 2018 was more tempting; enciphered dedications of pieces sung by Lichfield Cathedral Choir during the year. I wasn’t one of the top scorers, but there were only 3 of the 24 I couldn’t do, and a fourth I solved outside the 24-hour window. I was able to identify every piece for which I deciphered the coded dedication. I took pride in submitting solutions as soon as possible after the questions were released at midnight each day, which kept me up some nights, though never really late! I did the decipherments by various methods: identifying the cipher, looking for the most commonly occurring symbols and matching them to common letters, using dates (where these appeared unenciphered), or trying to find common words such as ‘commissioned’ or ‘dedicated’ and formulaic phrases (a method which has been fruitful in expanding our understanding of Etruscan).

This set me thinking about dedications in general. At least for anthems and service music, they only appear from the end of the 19th century onwards, perhaps because before then people just composed music as it was needed rather than being commissioned. The prevalence of commissions, and the consequent need to be serious, may also be why no one in music seems to have gone in for the sly humour of Nikolaus Pevsner in this area. However I have a few favourites, generally those where the dedicator has taken the opportunity to put the dedicatee’s name in virtual lights for a reason other than that they paid for the piece to be written. (And while I am a devotee of a composer who turned dedications into a minor art form, I shall leave Berg out of this post.) I have mentioned before Kodály’s UXORI CARISSIMAE on his Missa Brevis, getting the message out in a way that it would not have been had he written it in Hungarian. Another is Debussy’s gently punning one for his Ariettes oubliées to Mary Garden “inoubliable Mélisande”, so that his opinion of her creation of the title rôle in his opera would forever be on the record. I may add some more to the list as they occur to me.

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Review of the year: 2018

I don’t think that this was a particularly vintage year, though there was one obvious highlight: singing in Mahler 8 at the Proms. For public exposure that is hard to beat! If there was a theme to the year, it was that it largely reprised Three Choirs 2016, as I got to sing again four of the six pieces I performed then. I sang in Clifton Cathedral for the first time. I made the acquaintance of Will Todd’s Mass in Blue at a Come and Sing, and at last performed Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. From the Cathedral repertoire it was Purcell in B flat, Bach’s O Jesu Christ mein Lebens Licht and Weelkes’ Service for Trebles, amongst other pieces, that were new to me. I sang Duruflé’s Requiem with organ in Portugal, and with orchestra in Keynsham. I’ve also spent more time than I’d have liked bobbing about to try to get a view of the conductor.

Most of the performances I went to were local, either in Festivals or by local amateur groups, although I heard an organ recital at the Proms and another in the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona.

And now for some awards:

Performance of the Year. Mahler 8 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in the Royal Albert Hall (see above)

Building of the Year. Winchester Cathedral, where I sang both with the Cathedral Chamber Choir in August and with the Erleigh Cantors in October. I also went to a concert in Prior Park Chapel for the first time. And saw in Barcelona just what can be done with a concert hall when the choir is put at the heart of the design.

Repeated pieces. Nothing really spectacular, but there was Duruflé’s Requiem in its various guises, and at one point I kept encountering Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte.

Mistaken Identity award. Being thought to be French when I sang the Alleluias at a Catalan-language Mass.

Obstructive Fellow Singer Award. The winner of this may well turn out to be the all-time winner. Not content with usurping a place which had been carefully and clearly reserved for a soprano, he took it on himself in rehearsal to relay the conductor’s beat and gestures for the benefit of those of us who couldn’t see that far, and for good measure repeatedly gesticulated upwards if pitch dropped and shushed anyone he thought was singing too loudly. As I couldn’t face an evening next to someone who found fault with my singing every time I opened my mouth – that’s the conductor’s job! – I moved elsewhere for the performance.

Obstructive Fellow Singer Award: runners-up. The trio of sopranos (all from the same choir) at a Come and Sing (not one of Bristol Choral’s!) who decided to monopolise the solos, because of course no one else could possibly attempt any of them. I persisted in singing along with those parts I thought I could do competently – including some passages that their ‘lead’ singer kept getting wrong – so the soprano solo line was always a trio or quartet. It would have been better to divide them between us four (and indeed anyone else who wanted a go), as the altos, tenors and basses managed to do, so that it didn’t turn into a semi-chorus.

What does 2019 hold? I think it might be a year of change in some respects. We are looking forward to having an enhanced organ and new choir stalls in church, but there isn’t a definite timescale for either yet. That is something I’m really looking forward to. There are some pieces new to me turning up in concert, a first visit to Christchurch Priory and the Erleigh Cantors go further north than ever before! And I am going to try and put some more images – at least one a month? – into the blog.

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keeping that candle going

Back in St David’s for Christmas again, and this time we arrived at the Cathedral for 9 Lessons and Carols soon after the doors opened and were able to sit at the back of the nave (next to someone who had apparently been parked there by some fitter companions who sat elsewhere).

I’m happy to report no electrical mishaps interfering noisily this year, although at this and other services I noticed that the heaters near the crossing still intermittently hum noisily. I didn’t fare quite so well with the candle because of a draught from the direction of the West door, so it only lasted till the Seventh Lesson. I thought I’d be all right in the dark with the remaining hymns (all in English), but got slightly floored by one of the less frequently sung verses of O Come All Ye Faithful: ‘Child, for us strangers/Poor and in the manger,/erm er umm umm….’

What of the choir? Along with some standards we had some pieces with Welsh connexions such as a setting of a translation of Es ist ein Ros’ by Meirion Wynn Jones and George Guest’s beautiful arrangement of Suo Gân. I’m sure the Guest would be better known if choirs could get over the language barrier (it wouldn’t be the same in English).

The extravagant improvisations this year took some of their material from L’Arlésienne, or to be precise from the Provençal carol La marche des rois used by Bizet. St David’s clearly sticks to the same Mass settings for the Christmas services each year.

Meanwhile earlier in December we’d included two ambitious pieces in our own Advent carol service: Anthony Piccolo’s I look from afar and I am the day by Jonathan Dove (he likes setting texts about stars!). And I sang one of the O antiphons – gradually working my way round them all.

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my Clifton Cathedral début

I could have performed in Clifton Cathedral on a number of occasions – for example, if I’d joined the Bath Festival Chorus – but have never actually done so. The Cathedral doesn’t host many concerts, and I believe that Bristol Choral Society’s Messiah was the first performance of the piece there this millennium. (I am, as always, happy to be corrected if I get my facts wrong.)

It is a building uncompromisingly of its time – not for nothing did it win a Concrete Society Award in 1974 – and a large choir has to make room for the altar, so there is a very large distance between the front and the back. Also a ‘naughty step’ for the second row to sit on, rather than chairs. I did not find the resonant acoustic misleading, but it probably helped that I was in the front row.

We had a gratifyingly capacity audience on what was a very busy night for choral concerts in Bristol, and after another performance of Messiah nearby three days earlier. I enjoyed returning to the work after two years, but don’t regret not having sung it last year (about every three years is right for me, I think). Our performance got a five-star review in the Bristol Post.

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Today my church is running an ambitious sponsored event: our organist Keith Pigot has come up with 12 hours of repertoire and is playing from 7am-7pm in aid of the repair and restoration of our organ. I went over to hear him fairly soon after the start and he was going strong; I’ll return at lunchtime to check on him and give out mulled wine and mince pies to those who’ve come to hear him.

I’m happy to report he reached the £2000 target at about 10 this morning but all further support is welcome: donate at Organathon. Or of course come along to the church in person today and hear the performance! organathon

We would really like to make our organ into a proper recital instrument and not just repair recent damage from falling plaster.

I once organised a similar event in aid of RAG at university: 12 hours of hymn singing. But it wasn’t all done by just one person!

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a memorial and a Requiem

17th November turned out to be a busy day musically. In the morning I was in the choir for a memorial service for the parents(-in-law) of two members of my church choir, in the small parish church in Winsley. I appreciated the generous catering at the lunch afterwards, as I then had to hot-wheel it over for the Keynsham Orchestra and Chew Valley Choral Society’s performance of Duruflé’s Requiem in the parish church there.

I had two reasons for jumping at the chance to sing in this concert (which came via Bristol Choral Society). Firstly, these concerts have the enjoyable feel of a community event, which you don’t get even in Bath and certainly not in Bristol. I know one or two in the orchestra and you can purchase more generous catering in the shape of home-made cake in the interval. Secondly, although I have sung Duruflé’s Requiem countless times, I have only once before done it with full orchestra, in an All Souls’ Day Mass at St Mary Magdalene, Paddington. It is a very different animal from the more austere organ accompaniment one usually gets, with much extra colour and counter-melodies which are not to be found in the other version.

I was in the audience for the first part of the concert, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, which I was hearing for the second time that week, and the suite from the ‘Firebird’. Our soloists in the Requiem were Angharad Watkeys and Niall Hoskin and the conductor was Mark Gateshill. I was behind the horns which was not as deafening as you might think and gave me a chance to appreciate some of the counter-melodies mentioned above, for example near the beginning of the Libera me. Our performance was warmly received by a good-sized audience.

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Bath Mozartfest (3) – Sitkovetskys and Tallis Scholars

My husband went to hear the regular Festival visitors, the Sitkovetsky Trio, give a lunchtime recital at the Guildhall. They were not quite on their best form. Haydn’s ‘Gypsy Rondo’ trio worked well but Schubert’s D929 trio is rambling and they didn’t really find an inventive solution to this.

I was lucky to get a ticket to the Tallis Scholars’ concert in St Mary’s Bathwick as there was just one left in the =main aisle. I last heard them in Merton College Chapel in a fundraising concert. The programme ‘The Path to Purcell’ didn’t pretend to connect to Mozart and I wondered whether it might be linked to a forthcoming recording? I’m not complaining as it’s one of my favourite areas of repertoire.

Most of the music was pieces I’ve sung and in a number of cases am very familiar with. We got both Tomkins’ and Purcell’s settings of My Beloved Spake and O Sing unto the Lord. I have sung many performances of Tomkins’ canticles and of course the Responses, but only isolated ones of his anthems, which don’t seem to have found a very firm niche in the repertoire. Other composers represented were Gibbons and Pelham Humfrey.

The Purcell component was very much a selection of the ‘greatest hits’ among his anthems. I noticed that they went for the unusual variant of Eb and Db at the end of bar 63 in the alto part of Jehovah, quam multi sunt hostes mei. This imprinted on me because I discovered the anthem via a broadcast from Salisbury Cathedral which used it, but I’d never heard it since then until now! Now when am I ever going to sing My beloved spake?

Different singers were used in the different pieces, moving so nimbly around between them (they must be very practised at this) that one barely noticed. The performances were as polished as you’d expect from this group, with timbres of the individual voices distinguishable, yet blending with one another. Accompaniment was provided where necessary by James McVinnie on an imported chamber organ (not the Willis on Old Philharmonic pitch which lives in the church!) There were many I knew in the audience and the mood was set by lighting our seating with candles.

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Bath Mozartfest 2018 (2) – Angela Hewitt

We went to the Assembly Rooms on the Sunday night to hear Angela Hewitt, a regular visitor. She began with Mozart’s C minor sonata, which didn’t always seem totally secure. Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata was more settled and played with complete assurance. During this piece I felt the tuning of the Fazioli piano was coming slightly adrift, and sure enough the tuner appeared in the interval and was at work for some time.

The second half began with another Mozart sonata, K576 in D major, again one that was’t written primary as an exercise for his pupils. The final piece was a performance of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin that alternated between the virtuosic and the reflective. I used to play some of this (not the final movement!) and still have a score. I’d heard the orchestral version on Radio 3 a few days previously which was a useful comparison, although there are two extra movements in the piano original. As with Hewitt’s interpretation of Liszt’s Sonata a few years ago, it was clear that she enjoys more recent pieces that reference the baroque. We were told this had not been programmed with the Armistice anniversary in mind, but it was obviously appropriate to it. The encore was the same composer’s Pavane pour une infante défunte.

We’d observed the centenary of the Armistice earlier at church, appending half an hour of readings and music to our usual service. So it was a six-anthem morning, perhaps the most notable inclusion being the addition of the Russian Kontakion to our current repertoire.

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Bath Mozartfest 2018 (1) – the Nash Ensemble

This year’s Mozartfest boasted a particularly appealing programme with stellar performers, and it was possible to come by tickets for all the concerts we wanted to go to – maybe a consequence of austerity? I made a point of going to the first Saturday morning concert in the Assembly Rooms, with the festival regulars, the Nash Ensemble, who brought along with them the likes of Michael Collins and Adrian Brendel.

Mozart’s string quintet K593 had a formal sophistication which marked it out as a late work and in some sense the most mature work on the programme. Weber’s Clarinet Quintet in B flat was essentially a showcase for the clarinettist (Michael Collins) – a concerto with the orchestra replaced by a string quartet. They had an accompanying role and you never really got to hear them pass material around themselves or have a solo line as individuals. Once you accepted that, it was an enjoyable piece with a virtuoso clarinet line played with ease.

Beethoven made various youthful excursions into multi-instrument chamber music, and in the early days of this blog I wrote about the Nash Ensemble playing one of the less successful ones. By the time he wrote the Septet he’d solved the problems of balancing the instruments, and after the Weber I was carefully checking that everyone had their moment of glory. They did – a set of variations gave good opportunities for this – and even the double-bass player came through in some of the lighter scored passages. The work has the multi-movement form of a serenade, and as far as I can tell is the earliest septet to have made a mark on musical history, with quite a few later composers taking up the challenge.

The concert was well attended, but I saw very few of school age, which is a shame when the timing was friendly to young people. I still think about the chandeliers in the Assembly Rooms, but having watched some of the world gymnastics championships recently, I now imagine the sort of routine a top gymnast might construct around them.

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