how to commemorate 370 people

I sang Fauré’s Requiem at an All Souls’ Day service and was told afterwards that some 370 of the faithful departed had been commemorated by name at it. All Souls’ Day does seem to have caught on in the Church of England in recent years, at least round here. My usual church had a service for the first time that I can remember, and clearly people felt a need to add names in quantity to the list that was read out.

I notice that 9 years ago I was already running out of things to say about Fauré’s Requiem in this blog, but I can at least reflect on its popularity. I’ve sung it half a dozen times on November 2nd in this church, the first time being in 1999, and almost always with the same soloists and most of the same singers. It is very familiar to most choral singers and the organ part as far as I can tell is not hugely demanding, and there aren’t actually so many really high quality pieces of which this can be said. No wonder it is popular. (We used way back to sing the Duruflé Requiem at All Souls as well, and the mystery of the missing copies seems to have been resolved. They were on long-term loan from a local school, but were eventually returned to it.)

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hearing your own choir

I dashed over to Colston Hall from Wells to Bristol Choral Society’s concert. I didn’t arrive in time for the first half (Schumann Lieder) but went for the second half – Brahms’ German Requiem.

I had had a nasty cough so I think I was not a great loss to this concert as I doubt that I could have coped with Brahms’ strenuous vocal demands. The soprano section sounded good and in fact all parts of the choir were confident and in tune, so I didn’t feel guilty about not being in the choir for this one. And the choir’s ensemble (which it is hard to judge if you are in it) was impressive, including the consonants! A fair few of us would have sung in the choir’s last performance of this work five years ago (the term I joined – I wasn’t able to sing in that performance either). A curious feature of Colston Hall’s acoustics was that from the right of the stalls I could have sworn it was the alto section on the left of the choir, were it not that I could see it was the first sopranos.

It is rather strange listening to your own choir as you feel that you are in the wrong place. Also that you are still somehow on duty as you will be expected to provide feedback for the benefit of the choir.

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a rub from Pangur

This autumn seems relatively empty musically. I think this is partly in comparison with last autumn which was exceptionally busy, with three concerts over and above what I’d usually do. By contrast, this year there is one event fewer, because of a clash of dates, and this comes after missing the Cathedral Chamber Choir’s trip to Lincoln in August.

After 10 years (the last visit was just before the new song room opened) the Erleigh Cantors came back to Wells, for my second weekend of the year in the Cathedral. While rehearsing in the Nave choir stalls I got a friendly rub round the legs from Pangur the cat (I think it was he rather than Louis) and it was lovely to see David, my former College Chaplain.

We brought quite a lot of pieces which were new to me. No early music this time (giving it a rest after all the Josquin at St David’s). Our Eucharist setting was Howard Goodall’s Missa Aedis Christi. The recording of this is misleading, as the Mass was revised afterwards, possibly to make it shorter (although it’s still pretty expansive).

Our Sunday evening anthem was Richard Shephard’s And when the builders, written for the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral – hence perhaps the text The silver is thine and the gold is thine for this fund-raising group! A lot of time-signature changes and apparently awkward leads which fell into place with the organ accompaniment.

There were also a couple of pieces I’d only done once before. I have rather unhappy memories of Vaughan Williams’ O vos omnes because the only other time I’ve ever sung it, it went very flat almost at once and then I couldn’t pitch my notes. This performance had no such problems. The piece seems to be (undeservedly) very little known; it’s not listed in the Wikipedia list of VW’s works.

I do enjoy Walton’s Jubilate, which we sang at Matins (I was the middle of the 3 upper-voice verse parts). A further challenge was Anthony Piccolo’s Responses, a tricky setting which I hadn’t sung for a few years. We also fitted in music by Rutter, Sumsion, Elgar (The Spirit of the Lord), Naylor and Dyson!

After Saturday evening, I dashed over to Bristol to hear Bristol Choral Society’s concert, but that must wait for the next post.

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Constructivism but no umbrellas

Suddenly realising that we were on the point of missing WNO’s Khovanshchina performances altogether, we grabbed tickets, leapt in the car and drove off to Cardiff to see it (as often with more ambitious repertoire, it wasn’t coming to Bristol).

Was any operatic character so much on a hiding to nothing as Marfa? She is clearly getting nowhere with Andrei Khovansky, threatened with death by Golitsyn (though I thought they might have made quite a good couple) and derided by other Old Believers, whom she joins just in time for them all to commit mass suicide. Her real function seems to be to hold together the various parts of a very diffuse plot. In this thankless role we had the spirited Sara Fulgoni. Mark le Brocq, with whom I used to sing in Cambridge choirs played Golitsyn (why is it he always seems to play plonkers?). The orchestra thrillingly brought to life Shostakovich’s completion of the score, conducted by Tomáš Hanus.

The sets had a vaguely Soviet look, (Golitsyn was carried off into exile in a frame which had previously held a Constructivist-looking painting) and despite being Pountney I saw no umbrellas. The whole stage ended up being rather cluttered, with characters having to dodge bric-a-brac left over from earlier scenes. In the final scene the funeral pyres resembled nothing so much as those outdoor heaters you get in pub gardens, though to be fair, I don’t think those were commonplace when this production was new. There was the usual (for WNO) superb use of lighting. And they no longer seem to have problems now disposing the chorus around the stage.

It is a confusing opera if you aren’t familiar with that bit of Russian history, and possibly if you are. Probably no production can really solve all its problems, but we are glad that we went to this one.


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Gloomy Mahler (2) – Kindertotenlieder

The Bath Philharmonia and Jason Thornton brought Mahler back to St Swithin’s Church. For the conductor, Jason Thornton, this marked the point at which he had conducted all of Mahler’s orchestral works

We had Mahler’s orchestration for strings of the first movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. It’s hard to see quite what Mahler had to add or rearrange, apart from finding something for the double basses to do (they doubled the cellos from time to time and added reinforcing pizzicatos).

This was followed by a sensitive performance of Kindertotenlieder (in the chamber arrangement by Rainer Riehn) given by Gavin Carr. In the orchestra, I was particularly impressed by the woodwind playing. The second half Gavin was joined by Gemma Roper as soloists in Fauré’s Requiem with Cantilena (the local authority youth choir). A good preparation for my singing the piece myself in November; it was hard to imagine that the choir rarely sang with an orchestra.

The concert was well attended (a good audience of parents etc. is more or less guaranteed when you have a lot of young people performing). I sat in the side gallery, where the sideways view of the performers is blocked by pillars; one member of the audience stood up throughout in order to see them. Not for the first time, I wondered why the audience couldn’t use the West part of the gallery, which has no such impeded view. In fact some relatives of one of the soloists were seated there, so what was the reason for excluding others in the audience? I also reflected rather sadly on the absence of an organ in this church – you can see the space where it used to be.

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Gloomy Mahler (1): Prom 72

I happened to have a ticket to London on the day the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Harding were performing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Just that – the need to fit a 2-hour concert later in the evening meant that even with a 6.30 start there was no time for a curtain-raiser such as a Mozart or Haydn symphony, a piece of Second Viennese School, or Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, which I feel is the subtext to Mahler’s Sixth – I seemed to hear fragments of it all over the place.

I was impressed by much of the playing, though mainly by wind and brass rather than the strings that this orchestra is famous for. While I’m used to orchestras playing behind their conductor’s beat, the time lag here was unusually large, and there were moments of ragged ensemble.

I’m probably not the person to ask about the merits of the interpretation, as I’m not really a Mahlerian. The slow movement came second, which is the order I favour as it then separates two faster, urgent movements. Though as tempi were on the steady side, they could have got away with the other order too. I was carried along without feeling overwhelmed, which probably makes it a failure on the Mahler ratings scale. But at least I have now heard the VPO live.

I went to another performance some years back though don’t remember enough now to compare the two.


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the season begins

I don’t normally have much of a ‘close season’ for singing. Erleigh Cantors at the end of July are followed by Cathedral Chamber Choir towards the end of August, and then church choir and Bristol Choral resume in the first week of September. But this year there has felt like a gap, of nearly a month after the Prom. During that time I spent 2 weeks in the USA which didn’t really yield any suitable material for this blog, and I didn’t join the Cathedral Chamber Choir in Lincoln. Perhaps also the Prom was a very definite end to the season as it was the last BBC National Orchestra of Wales Prom too.

The season began with Christ Church Bath on tour, something we only do occasionally. We were singing Evensong in the Stogumber Festival, in a village now ministered to by one of our former assistant clergy as part of a benefice lying largely on the West Somerset Railway. Shades of the Exultate Singers in Dunkerton as we delved into a remote corner of the county down some almost impossible roads. It would have been nice to have seen the village in better weather. We sang Stanford in B flat and Howells’ Hymn to St Cecilia to a decent-sized and appreciative congregation.

The season starts rather quietly as I’m not singing in the next Bristol Choral Society concert, but it continues with another visit to Wells (my third sing there of the year), followed by Mahler 2 (a first for me) and another first at Christmas: Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols which I’ve somehow managed to miss singing until now. But that’s some way off.

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my Proms début

I don’t take occasions like this for granted. After many years of going to Promenade concerts I was finally on the other side of the stage in the choir stalls as an ‘extra’ with the BBC National Chorus of Wales.

The backstage areas at the RAH are well equipped, with a comfortable common room/bar for the performers, and the staff I encountered were cheerful and helpful. So it didn’t matter too much that the awful weather confined me to the hall between rehearsal and concert. When I was actually in the hall I had a pleasant surprise. I had thought that having the organ in the middle of the stalls would cause the choir to fragment, but I could hear my alto and bass colleagues on the other side of it quite clearly.

As often, I had a good view of the extensive percussion section, which had some unusual instruments including a set of crotales (I had to look the name up), several cowbells and something which looked like a clothespeg (actually it may really have been one, used for holding music to a stand). They were mostly used for Brian Elias’ cello concerto. I’m afraid I can’t give much of an account of this as the soloist Leonard Elschenbroich was facing away from me and not very audible. It wasn’t the flashy-show off kind of concerto.

Somewhere in that percussion section was a whip which was used in the Britten, but I was too busy to notice exactly where. Hearing Ballad of Heroes with the orchestra demonstrated how much of the central part could have been written by Shostakovich, right down to the xylophone entry at the reprise. As often with Britten, I felt the undemonstrative music, when the chorus entered in Part III, was the most effective.

Reading the reviews you’d feel that Elgar’s arrangement of Purcell’s Jehova quam multi sunt hostes mei was a bit unloved. And yet it’s very hard completely to mess up a baroque piece with an inappropriate arrangement, especially when it’s made by a great composer. While Elgar’s setting of ‘Respondet mihi’ didn’t work for me, and ending that section quietly missed a chance for a contrast with the unaccompanied one which follows, I rather liked what he did with the bass solo.

I last heard the Enigma Variations a year ago, conducted by our chorusmaster for this performance. I enjoyed Ryan Wigglesworth’s performance, which took time to savour some of the slower movements without wallowing too much.

As you’d expect from a Prom, there are lots of reviews, though it almost seems as if some of the reviewers had been at different performances from one another. But some sites which reviewed every other Prom didn’t review ours. I can only think the reviewers were deterred by the rain.

Singing at a Promenade concert was probably top of my bucket list of things to do relating to music. I’m not sure what has replaced it; possibly singing a Choral Evensong broadcast (or the broadcast in that slot). Although I’ve sung with at least three choirs that have done one of those broadcasts, there isn’t at the moment an obvious way I’ll get to do this.

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Acknowledgement to Dave Alkan for the hashtag, too good not to take over. When I get to sing in the Prom on Wednesday I expect I’ll want to write about the experience rather than the repertoire, so here are some thoughts now.

JQM (as I believe it’s known in the trade) has long been one of my favourite anthems so I have a supply of scores and recordings to compare. I first discovered it while going by train from Shrewsbury to Swansea, so after doing it in Elgar’s arrangement with the BBC National Chorus of Wales it’s likely to be permanently associated with that country.

It’s a bit of a mystery piece in some ways. Why did Purcell set Latin? It’s not a very obvious liturgical text, and in fact this particular translation of Ps 3 is not attested elsewhere, which brings its own problems. Somewhere along the line the word maxillam became maxilliam, and Purcell sets the incorrect word to a rather jaunty dotted rhythm, in a ‘fantasia on one note’ passage for the bass soloist. (It’s easy to see palaeographically how the error would have crept in – an extra vertical line got added after the three in ‘-ill-‘ to make ‘-illi-‘.) Elgar (and some others) restore the Latin text at the cost of the rhythm.

Looking at different scores and recordings, it is interesting to look at how fashions have come and gone. Nowadays the anthem does not usually end with a tierce de Picardie (nor does it in Elgar’s version). And there must have been an edition which flattened two alto notes on the word ‘sustentat’; the recording of Salisbury Cathedral which introduced me to Jehova does this, but no others.

Ballad of Heroes recalls various other pieces by Britten – most directly the War Requiem but also Rejoice in the Lamb (lots of chanting on middle C) and perhaps more surprisingly A Ceremony of Carols, written shortly afterwards. Because I did Ceremony for O-level Music and so know it very well, I tend to use it as a yardstick for everything else by Britten. In this case the stretto in the middle section of the Ballad reminds me of that in This little Babe. Ballad of Heroes must be the only piece of classical music to mention ceramic flying ducks, which are surely what the ‘beautiful birds on the wall’ are. (Auden couldn’t resist a dig at the aspirational middle class.) They went on the market around the time the poem Britten sets was written.

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Bax and Josquin in St Davids

The Erleigh Cantors started out doing day-trips from Reading but have gradually ventured further afield. St David’s was definitely the furthest we’d been, though there are rumours that the choir’s next step might be to conquer the North. And then the next stop will be St Magnus’ Cathedral.

So this weekend had the feel of a short choir tour, as we were staying nearby and kept bumping into one another around the little city when we weren’t singing. Most of us fitted in some time on the coastal path or paddling in Whitesands Bay.

Musically we extended our temporal range too, going back to Josquin’s Pange Lingua Mass, most of which we performed (apart from the Creed) on Sunday morning at the Cathedral’s monthly Choral Eucharist. The long and apparently maeandering phrases took a little getting used to, and the writing could be very exposed, especially when only one half of the choir was singing a particular section. But when it came to the performance I felt secure, because the almost unchanging tonality (Carl Orff could have learnt a thing or two from this guy about how to write choral music without changing key) left me free to concentrate on the rhythms.

The other major novelty was Bax’ evening canticles in G. The Magnificat is textually odd since it is the Authorised Version text not the BCP’s, and lacks a Gloria (and indeed an Amen, unlike Finzi’s). The notes needed a lot of work: phrases that were tricky in themselves and then were repeated in a subtly different form, along with numerous changes of tempo. There’s a big theme to latch on to, in the style of Dyson or Wood, and then suddenly you are into characteristically slithery harmonies. The Nunc, written separately is a little more conventional, with a unison minor 9th for interest. I am not a Bax fan in general but after working on them a lot these canticles did grow on me.

On Saturday we sang Blair in B minor, which I’ve done a few times before. Hugh Blair is a bit of a mystery; he was organist of Worcester Cathedral for a couple of years when he was in his thirties, and then disappears for the remaining 30-odd years of his life. None of his other compositions seem to have made it outside Worcester Cathedral, which on the evidence of these canticles is a bit of a shame, or maybe he only had one good piece in him.

There were other pieces which were new to me: Rutter’s Praise the Lord O my Soul (we are gradually working our way through Psalmfest), Gabriel Jackson’s Holy is the True Light (don’t try to sing the central section in 6/8!) and Guerrero’s Ave virgo sanctissima which gave the second sopranos the easy task of following the firsts in canon.

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