An Exploration of Time with the Rodolfus Choir

31/07/2014

 Three Choirs Festival (6)-  Tavener, Tallis, Bach, Jackson, Parry, Ley, Cruft, Pärt, Victoria, Howells, Kodály, Time and its Passing: The Rodolfus Choir / Ralph Allwood (conductor), St George’s Church, Barborne, Worcester, 30.7.2014 (RJ)

John Tavener: O, do not move
Thomas Tallis: Thou wast, O God
Bach: Et incarnatus est (Mass in B minor)
Gabriel Jackson: To Morning
Tallis: Miserere nostri
C Hubert H Parry: There is an old belief
Henry Ley: A prayer of King Henry VI
Adrian Cruft: These hours
Arvo Pärt: …. which was the son of ……
Parry: Music, when soft voices die
Tomás Luis de Victoria
Tavener: Song for Athene
Parry: Let me know mine end
Bach: Crucifixus (Mass in B minor)
Herbert Howells: Take him, earth, for cherishing
Zoltan Kodály: Evening Song

After mentioning the name of Ralph Allwood a few days ago in a  review of the International A Capella School, I was surprised and delighted to see the man himself in action at the Three Choirs Festival. The Rodolfus choir is made up of the most outstanding alumni of his Eton Choral Courses.

This a capella concert took place not in Worcester Cathedral itself but in a late Victorian Church in the city designed by Sir Aston Webb, better known as the architect of Admiralty Arch and the V & A Museum in London as well as Birmingham University.  A red brick building but beautifully spacious the church boasts excellent acoustics making it ideal for this concert.

The programme set out to explore the nature of time in sound and music. Perhaps the spatial dimension should have been added, because of the imaginative use the choir made of the interior of the building. They sang the first Tavener piece at the back of the church, the words seeming to float in on the air, before surrounding the audience for Tallis’s Thou wast God and thou wast blest.  The words may be unfamiliar but this is in fact the Tallis theme Vaughan Williams used in his famous Fantasy, and opportunities to hear the original hymn set in Phrygian mode occur surprisingly rarely. Later the choir sang with ease his more complex Miserere nostri for seven voices with intricate counterpoint – another timeless work.

Tavener is much in favour this year, when he should have been celebrating his 70th birthday, so there was no excuse not to include a second work of his in this morning concert – his Hymn to Athene, sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The texts are by an Orthodox nun, Mother Thekla, and inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Orthodox liturgy.  The first text, May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, and each of the following ones are preceded by monophonic Alleluias sung by the men, while to add to the sense of mystery and otherworldliness a continuous drone underlies. This immaculately performed work made a profound impression on the listeners.

I did not enjoy the Bach excerpts as much as I should have done, because the previous afternoon I had heard the whole Mass with all the trimmings in the Cathedral. However, the inclusion of three works by Parry, all sung with great sincerity, were well worth turning up for. There is an old belief looks forward to meeting old friends in the afterlife and sounded welcoming and reassuring, while his setting of Shelley’s Music when soft voices die had an aura of calm and sweetness. But the best was yet to come: the eight part Lord let me know mine end in a powerful and emotional performance.

Allwood, who provided pertinent introductions to the works retains a good sense of the humour. I was expecting the Arvo Pärt work to be profoundly spiritual, but it turned out to be a setting of Christ’s genealogy (in reverse) from St Luke’s Gospel – an exploration of pitch and dynamics rather than theology! He also programmed Cage’s 4’33”, which is not a work at all, of course, but an excuse for a period of silence.  However, I will forgive him such indulgences after such an uplifting performance of Parry’s Take him, earth, for cherishing composed in response to President Kennedy’s assassination. This was a jewel of a concert in a jewel of a church.

Roger Jones

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