Cheltenham Music Festival: Marian Motets and Duruflé Requiem Find Sympathetic Acoustic


  Tallis, Victoria, Palestrina, Parsons, Weir, Kendall, Andrew, Tabakova, Tavener  Duruflé: Esther Brazil (mezzo sporano), Nicholas Morton (baritone), Choir of Merton College Oxford, St Cecilia Singers, Oriel Singers, Guy Johnston (cello), Carleton Etherington (organ) / Benjamin Nicholas (conductor), Gloucester Cathedral, 8.7.2014.


Thomas Tallis: Videte miraculum
Tomás Luis de Victoria: Ave Maria
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Alma redemptoris mater
Robert Parsons: Ave Maria
Four Marian Antiphons (world premiere)
Judith Weir: Ave regina caelorum
Hannah Kendall: Regina caeli
Kerry Andrew: Salve regina
Dobrinka Tabakova: Alma redemptoris mater
John Tavener: Two Hymns to the Mother of God; Song for Athene
Maurice Duruflé: Requiem


 Women composers (British, American and Polish) are exceptionally well represented at this Cheltenham Festival – and, of course, have also featured in past Festivals, as Rhiannon Mathias reminds us in her article in the Festival programme book. Now that a British woman – Judith Weir – is to be appointed to the prestigious post of Master of the Queen’s Musick, I felt just a little peeved that in a symposium on Women Composers before this concert the British musical establishment should be condemned as being “pale, male and stale”.  I would have thought attitudes had moved on since Dame Ethel Smyth’s time and nowadays compositions have a much better chance of exposure, no matter what gender the composer is.  To be fair, one of the panel, Dobrinka Tabakova, insisted that she had received nothing but encouragement in her quest to become a composer, but perhaps her Bulgarian origins have engendered a less defeatist or more ”can do” attitude on her part.

She was one of the composers featured in the first part of a choral concert devoted to motets and antiphions in honour of the Virgin Mary. I tend to dread concerts in Gloucester Cathedral especially when late Romantic works played by an enormous symphony orchestra are programmed, but a capella music works well in its vast spaces and the 16th century music performed by the Choir of Merton College, Oxford was a joy to listen to. From the highly decorated music of Tallis to the comparative simplicity of the Palestrina hymn the choristers acquitted themselves with distinction.

There were much greater differences between the choral pieces making up the Four Marian Antiphons.  I admired Judith Weir’s Ave Regina Caelorum for its clarity and the close rapport between words and music as well as the wonderful aves which seemed to float on the air. Hannah Kendall’s Regina Caeli was more orchestral in scope, intricate in construction and with a dissonance which tended to mask the words. Kerry Andrew’s Salve Regina felt rather cluttered with too many musical ideas to form a coherent message. By contrast, Dobrinka Tabakova’s Alma redemptoris mater for all its modernity seemed rooted in the English choral tradition. It had strong elements of Gregorian chant and the Merton Singers appeared very comfortable performing it. It could have been tailor made for the acoustic of the mighty cathedral.

Sir John Tavener was due to be celebrating his 70th birthday at the 70th Cheltenham Festival, but tragically this was not to be. Still, it was good to have a few short pieces by Sir John representing a very different tradition of liturgical music with a strong sense of inner stillness.

There was something of an inner stillness also in Duruflé’s Requiem which made up the second half of the concert. For this pewrformance the Merton College Choir were joined by two local chamber choirs and organist Carleton Etherington. Calmer and more meditative than other more popular requiems, notably those of Verdi and Mozart, there is a certain reticence about its opening, as if it is from a man in a state of shock over a death. But at the end of the Introit the prospect of lux perpetua lightens the gloom. The plea to be delivered from the pains of hell is heartfelt, and later the baritone voice of Nicholas Morton reinforces the message as he recalls God’s promise to Abraham. The Pie Jesu sung with such clarity and distinction by the Californian mezzo Esther Brazil, with a beautifully realised cello obbligato by Guy Johnston, brought to mind Fauré’s sublime and poignant version of this poem.  A sense of terror and anguish came out in the men’s singing of the Libera me, and although Duruflé omits some of the more terrifying parts of the Dies irae, a hint of dark menace underscores this section.  Fortunately Paradise beckons and after enduring the dark night of the soul the choirs brought forth some moments of sublime music in the conclusion to this work.

 If a performance speaks to the heart, as this one did under Benjamin Nicholas’ calm and assured direction, then it has to be judged a success.


Roger Jones  

Print Friendly



  1. John Hatch says:

    I’d go along with that review.
    Roger Jones spotted more points than I did, but we both liked it.
    Mr Jones plainly knows more than I do, but I struck up an interesting conversation with the baritone solo’s mum during the interval.

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews


Season Previews

  • NEW! Spitalfields Music Festival 2017 in December __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The 2018 Lucerne Summer Festival __________________________________
  • NEW! World Premiere of The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu in December at Milton Court __________________________________
  • NEW! Hampstead Garden Opera Bring The Enchanted Pig to Highgate in November __________________________________
  • NEW! Leeds Lieder’s Forthcoming Schubert Song Series in Leeds and Sheffield __________________________________
  • NEW! Svetlana Zakharova and Bolshoi Stars Bring Amore to the London Coliseum in November __________________________________
  • NEW! Tom Green and Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife Premieres on 15 October in Cardiff __________________________________
  • UPDATED! English National Ballet’s 2017 – 2018 Autumn/Winter Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Contemporary Music from Manchester’s Psappha in 2017-18 __________________________________
  • NEW! I Musicanti’s ‘Alexandra and the Russians’ at St Johns Smith Square, 2017-18 __________________________________
  • NEW! Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov’s Return to London in May 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! St John’s Smith Square announces its 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! The Pierre Boulez Saal’s 2017/18 Season in Berlin __________________________________
  • NEW! Birmingham and Beyond: Ex Cathedra in 2017/18 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Glyndebourne Opera Cup and Glyndebourne in 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2017/18 Season __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

  • NEW! Carly Paoli is ‘Singing My Dreams’ at the Cadogan Hall in February 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! A Composer Speaks Up for the Environment: An Interview with Margaret Brouwer __________________________________
  • NEW! Twelve Years of Celebrating Malcolm Arnold in Northampton __________________________________
  • NEW! What is the Critic’s Job? A Review of A. O. Scott’s Recent Book __________________________________
  • NEW! English Music Festival in Yorkshire Lifts the Lid Off an English Treasury __________________________________
  • NEW! A FULLY STAGED PILGRIM’S PROGRESS IN ORLEANS, MA __________________________________
  • NEW! JIŘÍ BĔLOHLÁVEK (1946-2017) AND THE CZECH CONDUCTING LEGACY __________________________________
  • NEW! JUSTIN DOYLE DISCUSSES MONTEVERDI WITH MARK BERRY __________________________________
  • NEW! Katie Lowe Wins the 2017 Elizabeth Connell Prize __________________________________
  • NEW! ITINÉRAIRE BAROQUE 2017: TON KOOPMAN TALKS TO COLIN CLARKE __________________________________
  • NEW! The Royal Opera House in Mumbai is Restored to its Former Glory __________________________________
  • NEW! iSING! – International Young Artists Festival in Suzhou, China __________________________________
  • NEW! A Riveting Kokoschka’s Doll from Sir John Tomlinson and Counterpoise __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month

    Search S&H