Swansea Bach Choir bid a glorious farewell to their legendary founder and conductor

19/07/2011

Tallis, Howells, Rutter, Barber, Lauridsen, Duruflé :  Swansea Bach Choir, Siân Menna Price (mezzo), Stephen Charlesworth (baritone), Jeffrey Howard (piano and organ), John Hugh Thomas (director), All Saints Church, Oystermouth, 17. 7.2011 (GPu)

Tallis, Te lucis ante terminum
Tallis, O nata lux
Tallis, Jesu salvator mundi
Gibbons, The Silver Swan
Rutter, Hymn to the Creator of Light
Barber, Four Songs
Lauridsen, Nocturnes
Duruflé, Requiem

The health of musical life is not to be judged solely in terms of the global superstars who fly from capital to capital, from one concert hall to another or one opera house to another. Nor is it even just a matter of the well-established professional orchestras and ensembles. Outside London, at any rate, much depends on the quality of amateur/semi-professional music making, and for that to be successful much often depends on the energy, the commitment (and of course the abilities) of a relatively few individuals. Those individuals may be primarily performers or organisers, or both. The concert under review, which was the second of this year’s Gower Festival (itself dependent on the hard work of many volunteers), was in part a celebration of the work of such an individual.

John Hugh Thomas founded the Swansea Bach Choir in 1965. He has been their director ever since: until this, his final concert. In those years the choir has gone from strength to strength, and has made an immensely valuable contribution to the cultural life of South Wales. For a number of years he was himself a member of the Heinrich Schütz Choir and the Monteverdi Choir. As a conductor he has given performances with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Hanover Band. In 1983 he was invited by the BBC to set up the BBC National Chorus of Wales and went on to serve as their Chorus Master for a dozen years. He was involved in the creation of the National Youth Choir of Wales in 1984 – conducting them at the annual Bach Memorial Concert in St Thomas Church, Leipzig in 1992. He has been a guest conductor with numerous choirs in Britain and beyond. He has taught in the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (where he was Head of Vocal Studies) and in Cardiff University. In 1996 he was awarded the OBE for his services to music. Those services have obviously extended far beyond Swansea, but it was his work with the Swansea Bach Choir that was being celebrated on this occasion. Those who have sung in that choir seem to have an unfailing respect and fondness for him; their admiration for his musical abilities and his ability to communicate his knowledge is unstinting. Their fondness often involves a certain amusement too – at John’s frequent struggles to remember into quite which pocket he has put his pitch pipe, for example. But, as one former member of the choir told me – if he can’t find it at all that’s no problem, since he is perfectly capable of singing the first note of every section of the choir!

The programme John Hugh Thomas had selected for this farewell concert had an inescapably valedictory feel about it. Almost all of the pieces – whatever the periods or styles in which they were written – reflected, in Thomas’s own words, “on the literal and metaphorical significance of light and its loss”. This was certainly true of the three motets by Thomas Tallis which opened the programme, all of them most often sung at the last of the monastic hours, Compline. In ‘Te lucis ante terminum’ the work of the sopranos was particularly lovely and in ‘O nata lux’ the blend of voices did great credit both to choir and director. Especially beautiful and satisfying was a moving performance of ‘Jesu salvator saeculi’ with its alternation of plainchant and polyphonic verses, from the prayerful invocation of its opening to the exquisite dissonance with which it closes. This did real justice to one of the most profound of Tallis’s motets. Tallis was remembered in the piece that followed, as Jeffrey Howard at the organ played Herbett Howells’ ‘Master Thomas Tallis’s Testament’, a nicely articulated performance of a piece included in Howells’s Six Pieces for Organ (1953), and written in 1940. Howard conveyed very clearly the growing complexity and intensity of the variations on the initial theme; I have heard the piece played a good deal louder than it was on this occasion, but the subtlety of Howells’s writing was all the more evident at this lower volume.

The choir returned for John Rutter’s ‘Hymn to the Creator of Light’, written as a tribute to Howells and first performed in Gloucester Cathedral in 1992, when a stained glass window was dedicated to Howell’s memory. This double-choir motet is one of my favourites amongst Rutter’s output, its chromatic harmonies here sung beautifully and expressively, the mystical dimensions of the opening very well realised and the subtleties of its ending handled with assurance.

Mezzo Siân Menna Price and baritone Stephen Charlesworth (stepping out from the ranks of the choir) then sang four songs by Samuel Barber, accompanied at the piano by Jeffrey Howard. Stephen Charlesworth’s rendering of ‘The Monk and his Cat’ had wit and charm and his performance of ‘Sure on this Shining Day’ (a setting of less than wonderful words by James Agee) was vocally very sure-footed and intelligently characterised. In her two songs (‘The Desire for Hermitage’ and ‘I Have Old Women’s Secrets Now’) Siân Menna Price was a little inclined to privilege vocal line too much over verbal detail (that perennial balancing act for singers!), but there was still much to enjoy.

The choir returned to close the first half with Morten Lauridsen’s ‘Nocturnes’. I have to confess that I have never really shared the enthusiasm of John Hugh Thomas (and many others) for Lauridsen’s choral works. Though it was clear why the work was apt for this programme, with its texts’ abundant imagery of night and stars, I found it the least interesting part of the concert. I am ready to believe that this is a blind spot of mine; certainly the cycle was sung and conducted with commitment and high competence.

The second half was given over to a performance of Duruflé’s Requiem of 1947 (in, of course, the version for choir and organ). The beauty and wisdom of Duruflé’s Requiem, with its dominant note of serenity made it a fine choice as a conclusion (and it certainly showed off the virtues of the choir). This performance was impressive and moving, the excellent acoustic of All Saints serving it well, and the moments when the sunlight (in between showers of rain) lit up the stained glass of the church made for one of those experiences when music, place and occasion seemed perfectly matched. The singing of the Kyrie made clear the high skill of Duruflé’s polyphonic writing and the climactic “Hosanna in excelsis!” at the close of the Sanctus was radiant. Siân Menna Price seemed more fully at home here than in the Barber songs, and her Pie Jesu was poignantly beautiful. Having shown us more than once that they could deal with complexity, the choir also demonstrated their capacity to sing simpler music without making it sound simplistic, in the Agnus dei and the Lux aeterna, full of moments of great beauty. In the closing affirmation of the In paradisum, the opening chords were exquisite, a fuller expression of deep tranquillity succeeding, and seeming to grow out of, them. The unresolved dominant ninth on which the work ends had an unforced power that was remarkable.

There is evidently no diminution in John Hugh Thomas’s musical abilities even as he retires from the demands of his role as director of the choir he has built up and maintained for so long. That so many ex-members of the choir were there was indicative of the respect in which he is held; so was the prolonged standing ovation he received from the capacity audience in this large church. Nor was it altogether a surprise that members of both The Sixteen and The Monteverdi Choir had made special journeys to be here at his final concert with his choir. His young successor Greg Hallam certainly has, in his own words, “some big shoes to fill”.

Glyn Pursglove

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