recalling Cambridge

During my time in Cambridge I sang with two different chapel choirs, and I’ve recently been reminded of both.

First was a memorial concert near Bath to mark 20 years since the death of William Walls, for whom I sang for a year when he was organ scholar of Christ’s College. During that year I came across a lot of the church music repertoire for the first time, especially canticle settings, of which I’d done very few until then. He was an enthusiast especially for the music of Samuel Sebastian Wesley (I sang on a recording Christ’s choir made which was believed to be the first complete recording of the service in E), and I was among a group of his friends and relatives who sang Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, as well as The Silver Swan by Gibbons.

The following weekend I was invited to Cambridge to join the choir of my College, Corpus. The main chapel organ, paid for from a generous bequest, is too large and loud for the rather small space it is in, and a new chamber organ was being dedicated to offer a gentle alternative. A few former members came back to sing Howells’ Coll Reg Communion setting in the morning, and rather more to do Dyson in D and Stainer’s I Saw the Lord at evensong. We also had tea on the Master’s lawn and a short demonstration recital of the new organ thrown in. Still Pimm’s after Evensong in summer, though not the legendary ‘choir strength’ Pimm’s of my day, the result of the serving staff leaving us to mix our own drinks. It was a shame no one else from my time was there, and if another reunion is organised (as is quite likely) I will try to round up a few contemporaries. It was good though to see the two kneelers I made still going strong. And somewhere along the way I volunteered to do a history of the choir, at least as far back as my student days, probably in the form of a timeline.


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The Bath Festival 2018 – 2

My husband went to a couple of concerts in the Bath Festival, both given by performers who clearly enjoyed what they were doing.

Roman Rabinovich did a cycle of Haydn sonatas at St Michael’s Church. These were good performances given in a plain unshowy style on a modern piano. They were at a rather unusual time – mid-morning on weekdays, with coffee served. He gave brief spoken introductions to the sonatas, commenting that he felt Haydn was underrated. He played off a tablet with a scan of the score which scrolled to the right place as he played – even going back for a repeat! It must have been carefully coordinated with the speed of his playing (or possibly controlled by a page-turner planted in the audience or offstage?)

Roderick Williams’ Schwanengesang in the Assembly Rooms was excellent – he took more notice of the audience than Lieder singers often do. Some interpreters are quite harsh on, for example, Der Doppelgänger; Williams was more lyrical. Iain Burnside’s accompaniment was thoughtful and unobtrusive. The only criticism was that the pitch might have been slightly higher than optimal for him.

The only other part of the Festival I was involved with was the ‘Party in the City’ which this year was a couple of days in. My church hosted some groups, for the first time and after dropping some flyers there I went off to the school’s annual bash at Green Park Station.

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The Bath Festival 2018 – 1

It really is just the Bath Festival now, having amalgamated music and literature. I retain an open mind about this, though I know many people felt that either the literature side or the musical one would suffer. For me it is a return to an earlier phase of the Festival’s history when it included many different sorts of events. Fifty Festivals by Tim Bullamore tells the story of the Festival till the mid-1990s, and to judge by the couple of sample chapters online, it isn’t just in recent years that there have been crises, funding shortages, and changes of direction. I’d love to get my hands on a second-hand copy of this book.

We managed three concerts between us in 2018’s Festival. I went to hear Lars Vogt play Beethoven’s piano concertos no. 1 and 5 with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, directing them from the keyboard. He was seated with his back to the audience, and when he was not actually playing stood up to conduct the longer purely orchestral passages, and remained seated for the shorter ones. It was a remarkable achievement (he had played the other three concertos the previous evening, too). Some ‘gathering notes’ and occasional slight raggedness could be attributed to the absence of a separate conductor, but there was a corresponding gain in that the soloist could impose his interpretation directly on the orchestra. We have all heard concerto performances where conductor and soloist seemed to be at odds with one another.

The Assembly Rooms were almost full, and I was sitting near the back where it was easy to hear (in fact the balance of soloist and orchestra might have been at its best here) but the chairs not so well padded. The hot weather did affect the tuning of the winds from time to time. But I appreciated the book display in the circular hall outside – a benefit of the literature side of the Festival.

I’ll continue our concert reports in another post.

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an authentic harmonium

I joined local choir CanZona (the median capital letter differentiates it from the ensemble Canzona) for a performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle in aid of our church organ fund.

Years ago the Cambridge Chamber Group was going to do this piece, but with external soloists, contrary to this choir’s usual practice. The conductor, Ian Moore, said that Rossini’s apparent wish that soloists come from the choir was just his little joke and he didn’t really mean it. This time we followed Rossini’s direction and used our own soloists.

Last time I sang this piece I made a highly embarrassing mistake, so I was relieved that there was no equivalent mishap this time. The chorus parts are not physically demanding, but you have to be on the ball with split-second timing, as you’d expect from a composer of comic opera.

I have remarked before on the curious imbalances in the piece and I’m puzzled by, for example, the ritornello that is just a few bars, played once only, and the downbeat ending of the Agnus Dei(the major key of the final section being a bit like an extended tierce de Picardie and not really changing the mood all that much). Second time round, I notice that the that opening intervals of the Et vitam venturi fugue are as in Beethoven’s setting of the same text.

There appears to be a minor industry in hiring ‘authentic’ French harmoniums specifically for this piece. Ours came from London, and I know of another which went from Yorkshire to a performance in Cardiff a couple of weeks earlier. I can’t remember what we did in Bristol Cathedal – perhaps a chamber organ subsituted.

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captured by the Muse in the stratosphere

My attention was drawn to this telecast of a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music by a friend who is the brother of the tenor soloist. I enjoyed the performance, with brisk tempi and a choir who were not numerous but seemed well on top of the music (one particular soprano lead near the end of the Creed, which is usually shaky, came through clearly). My main reservation was that I sometimes felt the addition of the organ to be intrusive; maybe it seemed less so if you were in the hall.

There was however additional interest in seeing how the filming compared to, say, that of a choral Prom from the Albert Hall. We got many more shots of the chorus, or at least of some of them, as what you saw most of was the alto section. Perhaps the sopranos, ranged in front of them, weren’t so telegenic as they contorted their faces to reach the high notes or betrayed panic at the approach of some of the harder passages? At any rate one can, for example, compare concert dress with that worn by British choirs.

Google Translate doesn’t cope well with Hungarian, and I end with some quotations from its version of the page: ‘it can be compared to a symphony with a sibling… Beethoven was captured by the muse in the stratosphere, so he made a great effort on the fly to make it more monumental in liturgical contexts. ….Missa Beethoven is perhaps the most difficult piece to perform, so it is so numerous that the Óbuda Danubia Orchestra is now performing with the National Singing Car and Opera’s four private singers. … High and loud music, at the same time, is the strongest one, which brings meditatively into one and moves deeply to every person. … When the chorus and Gloria sound out of nowhere, except for Bach, all the religious music is obscured. There is no man to run the cold on his back.’

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memory test

It is my boast (and this is a bit of a boast) that I almost never totally forget a piece of music that I’ve performed, however long the interval until I perform it again. Unfortunately I usually don’t remember it perfectly either, and on re-encountering the piece I have to work out how much re-learning I’m going to have to do.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been re-introduced to some long-lost friends. I have good recall of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, which keen readers may remember I sang in 2014. Preparing an all-Bach programme (and preparing is all I’ll do, since I’m not free to sing in the concert), I find I don’t know Bach’s Magnificat as well as I thought I did; I sang the other soprano line last time I did it.

On the other hand, I remember Komm, Jesu, Komm and Singet dem Herrn, both works full of notes, almost perfectly, although I have not performed either of them within the lifetime of this blog. Komm is my favourite Bach motet but I have bittersweet experiences of it, as the last time I sang it was the final concert of the Brandon Hill Singers, where we barely had enough singers to cover the parts as so many had left. (I missed singing in another performance around then; it was the main work in a concert from which I felt I was unfairly excluded.) My previous performance of Singet was before I came to Bath.

So which factors help a piece stay in the memory?

  • I’m more likely to remember a good work than a bad one
  • having really learnt a piece thoroughly at some point; the first time I sang the Bach motets we were not stood with those singing the same part, so we really had to learn our line thoroughly
  • having first encountered the piece when young and with a more retentive memory
  • on the other hand, if I learnt a piece only a few years ago, I expect I’ll remember it
  • having performed it more than once, even if the last performance was a long time ago
  • the more notes there are, the more you have to remember

The most severe tests are the works I have done only once before, when I was a student. When I encountered them again recently, I didn’t remember Elijah or the St John Passion well, but there is a lot in both, and first time round they were, erm, rather hastily rehearsed. Similarly Mozart’s C minor Mass. If I want a real test, I ought to try having a second shot at Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi, at least, those parts that are not taken from his Requiem.

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taking Duruflé to Lisbon

I have not been on many foreign choir tours – on average, it’s been about once every four years – but two of the few that I’ve done involved Duruflé’s Requiem. Perhaps it’s because it is a substantial work for choir and organ, or at least with an organ arrangement by the composer. Bristol Choral Society took it to Lisbon for two performances. (The other tour I sang it on was with the New Cambridge Singers, who went to the Anglican church in Versailles.) We paired it with that old Corpus standard, Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, and our soprano soloist Gwendolen Martin sang two other French items.

Bristol Choral Society did several foreign tours in the period immediately before I joined. This was the first one since then which was organised by the choir with repertoire of our choosing. Choir tours come in two kinds – the ones that are rapidly oversubscribed so that choir members have to be turned away, and the ones where extra singers get drafted in to make up the numbers. We had a few imports, though not so many in my section.

We had difficulties finding a rehearsal venue, but the eventual solution was a rather atmospheric one: the Anglican church located in the Protestant cemetery by the Jardim de Estrela (a very multinational cemetery, amongst other things holding Commonwealth war graves). It’s the sort of corner that I wouldn’t think of visiting otherwise, especially as it is locked a lot of the time.

Our first performance was in the church of Nossa Senhora da Cabo, Linda-a-Velha, a modern church with an impressive acoustic. Our second was in the Cathedral, a largely Romanesque building which was sufficiently solidly built that it mostly withstood the great earthquake. Both performances had appreciative audiences of 100+.

However well the plans are laid in advance, foreign tours always carry the risk of some logistical problems. (I’ve had stories of organists turning up to practice at French churches and finding themselves locked out, Notre Dame de Paris disclaimed all knowledge of our choir when we turned up to sing Sunday Mass there, and when my College choir went to Hungary what happened often bore little resemblance to what was on our itinerary.) Nothing like that happened in this case, and both venues were suitable for our forces. Portuguese organs on this showing go in for en chamade pipes.

Am I up for more foreign choir tours? It will depend where they go. I wanted to revisit Lisbon, having been there briefly a couple of years ago. I declined an invitation to Germany last year, partly because I wasn’t very interested in the destination and also didn’t have much confidence in the travel arrangements (rightly as it turned out). And when part of the point of a tour is to get to know other choir members better, it’s important to me that the choir on tour resembles the membership of the choir back home.

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Holy Week and Easter 2018

I missed singing the Good Friday service last year, but this year I was available for everything except Maundy Thursday. Palm Sunday included Peter Aston’s Hosanna to the Son of David, one of his more mediæval-influenced works, and Leighton’s Solus ad victimam.

Good Friday’s music, for a service of music and readings, was mostly unaccompanied – not sure if this wasn’t partly to do with our organ having been temporarily replaced by a toaster while it’s repaired. I’ve already written about Pseudo-King John IV of Portugal. We brought out Philip Moore’s It is a thing most wonderful again, and although we couldn’t do Lotti’s Crucifixus (‘just couldn’t get the parts’), other items included Morales’ austere Parce mihi Domine, Tchaikovsky’s The Crown of Roses (about which I recommend this page from the local Gurt Lush Choir) and God so loved the world by Stainer.

On Easter Sunday our anthem was Bairstow’s Let all mortal flesh keep silence, which I last sang in St Edmundsbury a couple of years ago – and a lot of unfamiliar descants!

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in praise of the forgery

For Good Friday we are about to sing Crux fidelis by the person I shall call – following the convention used for Classical authors – Pseudo-King John IV of Portugal. This work obviously fooled the musical world for a while, but its suspicious lack of provenance and anachronistic features (see John Rutter’s edition) point to a 19th-century composer who never got any credit for it.

I’ve recently been considering another work that seems to be at least partly fake. The Erleigh Cantors have occasionally performed a Magnificat in faux-bordon ‘from Robert Fayrfax’ setting on the First Tone’ (which is otherwise unknown), paired with a Nunc ‘by an unknown Edwardine composer from a Chapel Royal Choir Book of 1547’. They were published as Novello’s Parish Choir Book series no. 1062. The editor, Royle Shore, has added a couple of bars of solo descant to the Gloria of each canticle.

I consulted an expert on the revival of Tudor music, and it seems most likely that the Magnificat has some basis somewhere in Fayrfax, such as a few bars extracted from another composition and repeated to make the composed part of the setting. Royle Shore was a solicitor and not a very expert editor, but he wanted to get Church of England parish choirs singing Tudor repertoire.

They’re pleasant enough canticles, though I have never come across any other choir performing them or seen them in a Cathedral choir library. I have to say that I still have my doubts about that Nunc, and suspect Royle Shore of having slipped in one of his own compositions.

Are these compositions diminished by not being of the authorship they seem? King John IV is famous as a king rather than as a composer, so while his name lends royal glamour to the composition, Crux fidelis is not being attached to an established body of work. Tweaking Fayrfax rather drastically (if that’s what’s been done) is a rather different matter and I wish Royle Shore had been more open about exactly what he did. But I have no problems about singing either of them.

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a dancing palm tree and a light-up whale

A recurring theme this spring is religious pieces in a jazz style. This time it was my first encounter with Jonah-Man Jazz, with the local primary school doing it as an end-of-term performance in church. The church choir provided me and a few other singers and some of the band.

Some 1960s attempts at church/jazz crossover have dated very badly, but this one hasn’t, although Michael Hurd never quite hit the jackpot again. My role was really to reinforce the consonants and keep the rhythm secure (and do a descant at one point). It’s a short work but was expanded in this performance with more narration and some dance numbers. Church was full of appreciative parents and other relatives.

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