one-recording ensembles

I’m slowly working my way through putting another collection of LPs on to CD. Most of them are by famous names, but there are a few recordings which seem to be the only ones, or almost so, made by those particular forces. Let’s have a look at some of them.

a) The Bernicia Ensemble. Named after the ancient kingdom covering SE Scotland/NE England and founded by flautist David Nicholson, they recorded Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts on LP for the Pan label in 1966. The only other recording by them is the soundtrack of a documentary about the Tay Road Bridge.

b) The Temianka Trio. This recorded Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor in 1975. This trio seems to have been assembled by Henri Temianka especially to record this piece. Usually when he played chamber music it was with the Paganini String Quartet.

c) Andrea Baron. A synagogue singer, her recording ‘A time of singing’ (1975) is a showcase for Jewish music in various styles (she also gave illustrated talks on this subject). It was produced privately and was probably acquired through some personal connection. Vocally it really is a solo album as she multi-tracks her own voice on a number of the songs.

d) Rumjana Atanasova. A prizewinner in a piano competition, this Bulgarian pianist recorded music by Schumann, Dvořák and Smetana for Supraphon in 1963. And then seems to have disappeared as I can find no other evidence of performances by her, let alone recordings.

There are so many questions left hanging when you come across a recording like this. Is Andrea Baron still singing in a synagogue somewhere? What happened to Rumjana Atanasova? Why didn’t the Bernicia Ensemble make more recordings?

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in praise of … the hire score

I have a rule of thumb that if it costs no more than twice as much to buy a score as to hire it, I’ll buy. (This seems to happen increasingly often.) There are advantages to singing from a score you own; you have exclusive control over all markings on it, and can leave in your own personal ones relating to particular difficulties you have. And you won’t have to pay in future to hire it.

But there is some pleasure in using a score that many others have sung from before you. You can for example boggle at some of the peculiar interpretations which your predecessors had to follow, or observe how you are not the first to find a certain passage tricky. At one recent concert our scores of a rarely-performed work were, I estimate, about 60 years old and had accumulated a fair amount of annotation. (As well as using some old-fashioned typography: crotchet rests a mirror image of quaver ones, repeated notes in the accompaniment indicated by slashes, and dots separated from the notes they lengthened. I don’t think I’d ever encountered that last one before.) My score included details of someone’s future travels (to France and New Zealand) on the flyleaf and some instructions in Welsh!

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A Badminton racket

The title was chosen for the sake of the pun, not because of the sort of noise I think we made! I sang at the funeral of a former assistant priest at a church in Bath, who had earlier been at Badminton, so that’s where the funeral was held. It’s an intriguing little church because it doubles as parish church and family chapel for the Dukes of Beaufort; essentially Georgian but with a Victorian extension to accommodate a huge memorial by Grinling Gibbons (formerly in St George’s Chapel in Windsor). It still has box pews (though not for the choir; I wished we had them as I was sat in a draught).

Our music was straightforward but good quality pieces such as In Paradisum from Fauré’s Requiem and Purcell’s Thou knowest, Lord. This and the dignified language of the whole service made it a gratifying experience to take part and I regretted I hadn’t known Tom Gibson better than I did; he was quite a character.

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this blog’s first Mozart Requiem

It was gratifying to sing once again to a full Cathedral for Bristol Choral’s most recent concert. Our first half was a piece I’d never sung before: Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum. I recall this being quite popular on concert programmes in Cambridge, maybe because it is fairly easy to put together including the soloists and sounds impressive. As long as you can get the trumpets of course – the British Sinfonietta’s showed how it’s done.

The second soprano part in this piece gets a certain amount of the infill that is usually associated with alto lines. But there are some highlights, such as the aria-like To thee all angels, which may be intended to compensate for the absence of a soprano soloist.

Few in the choir had encountered the Handel before, but almost everyone had done Mozart’s Requiem. This is the last really major choral work to feature in this blog for the first time. The previous performance of it I sang in, with the Bath Camerata one Good Friday, was just before I started writing the blog, and I don’t think I’ve been to a concert with it in since then. We were told that we should try to erase the interpretations of previous people we’d sung the piece for, and I didn’t find this too hard, not only because of the long time gap but because I think all the performances I’ve sung have been for different people. In particular, I never sang the Requiem for our choir’s previous Director of Music.

Certain passages in this work have acquired associations I can’t shake off. The local hospital had the opening of the Dies Irae on the mixtape which was played to people lying on the slab being measured up for radiotherapy; not really the piece to play to your cancer patients, one might have thought. On a lighter note, the interpretation of the Confutatis by a toy koala is surely definitive; watch this at your own risk! And as I’ve said before I can’t be the only person who cannot sing or hear the end of the Lacrimosa without visualising the closing scene of Amadeus, even if music and film alike are inauthentic.

So how much of the Requiem is Mozart? There are large chunks for which no score in his hand now exists, but was there once more, or was he able to communicate some of his ideas to Süßmayr? Or are we deluding ourselves and everything which is not attested in Mozart’s hand is by Süßmayr in its entirety? Did his proximity to Mozart enable him to raise his game and compose better music than he was normally capable of?

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a view of the marina

The song room at Christchurch Priory must have one of the nicest views of all: across to the inlet of the river Stour where there is a marina full of yachts. I’d never been to the Priory (or indeed the town) when the Cathedral Chamber Choir showed up for a weekend of services.

In amongst more standard repertoire were some pieces I hadn’t done before. I have heard Philip Moore’s Responses countless times on broadcasts but this was the first time I’d sung them and I found them harder than I expected to. A particular difficulty was sorting out crotchets and dotted crotchets in the Lord’s Prayer. Our only ‘early’ piece was the motet O quam suavis by Vivanco. And I hadn’t previously sung Matthew Martin’s Te lucis ante terminum which was nevertheless a fairly straightforward piece to begin the weekend with.

Our communion setting was Darke in E, some of which we sing in Bath, though not the Gloria which has some very exposed soprano lines. Matins had just one canticle, in our case Britten’s Jubilate in E flat. Our parting shot was Stanford’s For lo I raise up, which we’d been deprived of the chance to sing on our last choir tour. We put a lot of work into making this as good as we could achieve; it helped that evensong was late on the Sunday so rehearsal time wasn’t rushed.

It is an interesting building though not hugely resonant – the Durham-like thick Norman pillars see to that. I wonder what the Kaiser made of the service he attended there? I was sorry that all services were in the nave so we never used the historic quire. However, I’m not sure we’d have fitted in to the stalls, or having done so left room for a congregation there, and also a number of the misericords are fragile and in need of restoration. The clergy were much more musically aware than they are in many parish churches (even some ‘major churches’), and the organ sounds lovely after a recent rebuild. (Our organist explored its range of colours during his hymn accompaniments.) Christchurch Priory seems to be off the radar of many visiting choirs but is well worth considering.

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a coachload come to the Bachfest

Stile Antico’s concert at the 2019 Bach Festival in Bath was very well attended. I noticed a coach outside St Mary’s Church afterwards to take people away, and have learned that some local tour companies block-book at popular concerts. This may explain why some of them sell out so quickly, and also the age profile; certainly the audience age at this one was among the highest I’ve seen at a concert in Bath (which is saying something!), based on those people I saw.

I was up in the gallery, behind someone who I think may have been there to accompany his wife. At any rate, he spent much of the performance time in a circular sequence of opening his programme book (a large booklet covering the whole Festival’s concerts), finding the text and translation of the piece currently being performed, studying it, closing it, then opening the programme book to find his place again a couple of minutes later. The easternmost two sets of seats in the gallery weren’t available to us.

This was my third Stile Antico concert, and it consisted of works by Schütz and J S Bach written for funeral or memorial services, well suited to the week of a family funeral. Much of it was accompanied by continuo, sometimes including a theorbo (I am not an early music specialist but I’m now able to tell one of these from an archlute). When I first encountered this repertoire, the prevailing practice was to perform unaccompanied everything which could be so performed, but current attitudes towards accompaniment are more flexible.

There have been changes in personnel in Stile Antico in the last couple of years, but the group still has the chemistry which allows them to keep ensemble and agree on such matters as dynamics without a conductor, even when some of the singers were at one point detached from the rest at the very east end of the church. Schütz’ Musikalische Exequien showed up that their solo voices aren’t as interesting as those of say the Tallis Scholars or the Sixteen, in other words this ensemble is greater than the sum of its parts. The other two motets by Schütz fared rather better, as did the two Bach motets (Komm, Jesu, komm and Jesu, meine Freude). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stile Antico’s performance practice worked best in those movements in the latter which involved fewer than the total number of singers. I was rather surprised that as far as I could tell the Bach motets were performed at A=440. The encore was Thomas Campion’s Never weather-beaten sail which I think I heard the Tallis Scholars do as an encore in the same place a few months ago.

Guardian review

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an icy trip to the Abbey

I picked my way through the icy and barely thawed streets to go and sing evensong at Bath Abbey with the choir of St Peter’s Caversham, visiting for the day. As in October, we were in temporary stalls in the crossing, just west of a partition blocking off the hard-hat area that is the East End. Probably my last chance to look at the pews in the nave!

It was the coldest night of the year so far, and the glowing bars of the electric heater on one side were mainly decorative. Our service music was Radcliffe Responses, Psalm 118:1-12 (ending with 3 verses of the sort that are normally cut out!), Dyson in F and Balfour Gardiner’s Evening Hymn. Bath Abbey discourages introits these days, and we lost our hymn (though it wasn’t a particular favourite of mine!).

We had a loyal band of supporters, and I also supplied a singer to replace someone who’d put his back out shovelling snow. I look forward to returning to the Abbey when the East end is revealed, and when the floor is replaced above the new geothermal heating.

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a new chapter for the South West Festival Chorus

I used to sing quite regularly with this choir, which puts on ‘all-comers’ concerts preceded by intensive rehearsal twice a year. But I haven’t done so since 2013. I dropped out partly because various friends no longer sang in the choir, also I became less confident that the programme wouldn’t be changed after I’d signed up and paid up. Repertoire is an important factor in what I decide to sing in.

The choir has performed under the direction of Rupert Bevan for the last 3 years or so, and now a conductor well known to me is taking over. The first concert under their direction will be Duruflé’s Requiem and RVW’s Five Mystical Songs. I feel a bit Duruflé’d-out at the moment, so I’m passing on this one, but look forward to encountering this conductor in future in a new context. There are some real Bathonian characters awaiting them!

[Update February 2019: the Duruflé concert has been cancelled. I noticed a programming overlap with the April concert of Bath Choral Society. The chorus master I mentioned has dropped out, and I have since had an invitation to sing Gerontius with the choir in the summer, “We’re also recruiting a chorus master”]

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one-church denominations

I apologise in advance that this isn’t really about music, although there is a slight musical angle to it.

On my way to a Lord’s Test match last year I walked along the Regent’s Canal and noticed a handsome church on the other side in Maida Avenue. Later I looked it up and found it is the place where the last regular meetings of the Catholic Apostolic Church are believed to take place. This denomination once had a presence in most English towns of any size (Bath’s church is now the children’s nursery in Guinea Lane) and still has considerable assets, including owning Christ the King in Gordon Square. (The evidence for this can be found in the accounts filed with the Charity Commission.) But its belief in the imminent Second Coming was the source of its near-total demise. According to its rules, priests can no longer be validly ordained, and the last one died nearly 50 years ago.

Maida Ave Catholic Apostolic Church

A glimpse of Maida Ave Catholic Apostolic Church

It was apparently renowned for its music, with its own hymnbook and other liturgical music. Much of this was composed by Edmund Hart Turpin, and how good you thought the music was probably depended on what you thought of him as a composer. A similar situation applied with regard to Edward Wilton Ellis and hymn texts. At this point you realise how lucky the Methodist Church was to have Charles Wesley as its founding hymnographer. But there seems to have been no second generation of Catholic Apostolic Church composers, probably because of the long decline of the denomination through the first part of the 20th century.

So why is there still a congregation? I can think of other denominations at the ‘high’ end of the spectrum which are clinging on with a handful of adherents. The ordination of women has created a number of splinter groups breaking off from the Church of England, which (rather in the manner of Marxist political parties in Britain) have further subdivided themselves into ever smaller factions. There is at least one similar group which has seceded from the Roman Catholic Church over Vatican II. They have few church buildings, although I know of a church in Reading and recall seeing another (which was a former shop) in Canterbury; St Ninians, Whitby has successively belonged to three of these small groups since leaving the Church of England.

Why would anyone choose to be in such a denomination? Especially if you regard its sacraments alone as valid? Why attend a church such as the one in Maida Ave which seems to reject any form of evangelism, even a notice board? I can think of a few reasons:

  • conviction that you alone are right and the rest of Christendom, in particular the major denominations, are in error
  • an attachment to a particular building, congregation or liturgy
  • a chance to have a leading role with an impressive-sounding title
  • satisfaction at feeling that you are one of a very exclusive group
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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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