Three Choirs Festival 2011 (9) – Choral perfection achieved in less than a week

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Weelkes, Byrd, Tomkins, Mendelssohn, Elgar, Stanford, Rubbra, Howells, Lauridson, Tavener, Finzi: Eton Choral Course, Tim Johnson (conductor), Tom Winpenny (organ), Tewkesbury Abbey, 12.8.2011 (RJ)

I was puzzled when I arrived at this concert to find a familiar figure was missing – Ralph Allwood. Ralph set up these summer courses (now known as the Eton Choral Course) for young singers aged 16 to 20 back in 1980 when he was director of music at Uppingham – and over the years we have got used to seeing him mount the conductor’s rostrum to direct his protegees in their “passing out” concert.

Pessimists who have long forecast the end to the English choral tradition as we know it need to adjust their views somewhat thanks to Ralph Allwood’s initiative which has grown and flourished. His first course attracted just 35 participants; this year, by contrast, seven courses are being held throughout the country (at Cambridge, Cheltenham, Durham, Oxford and Eton itself) with 50-60 participants on each. And the organisation has now branched out into a course for junior singers aged 8 to 15 held at Easter.

So where was Mr Allwood? After a little detective work I discovered that he has stepped down from his post as Precentor and Director of Music at Eton – to be succeeded next month by Tim Johnson, today’s conductor. So I took my seat wondering whether Mr Johnson would succeed in his mission impossible – to create a choir from a group of enthusiastic youngsters in the space of six days which would impress a discerning Three Choirs Festival audience.

The choir started off confidently enough with Thomas Weelkes’ Hosanna to the Son of David before striking a more contemplative note in Byrd’s All Saints’ Day motet Justorum animae. There was plenty of feeling in Tomkins’ setting of David’s lament on his son Absalom’s death, but then the concert moved forward three centuries to Sir Edward Elgar and his prologue to The Apostles. The Spirit of The Land is an expansive work with broad flowing melodies, and the young singers, who seemed steeped in the oratorio tradition, acquitted themselves well. Stanford, another composer who contributed to the Renaissance of English music, was also featured, and it was splendid to hear the singers do full justice to his exquisite motet Beati quorum via.

Edmund Rubbra’s Magnificat in A flat brought a change of direction: this is dissonant and dramatic and gave the singers a chance to show their mettle in a longer, more diverse work. Local composer Herbert Howell’s was represented by two works: his Rhapsody in D flat magnificently played by Tom Winpenny of St Alban’s Abbey who accompanied the choir with such verve; and his setting of Robert Bridges’ poem I love all beauteous things, actually commissioned as an anthem for an exhibition of craftsmanship in St Alban’s and itself beautifully crafted.

Morten Lauridson’s O magnum mysterium dated 1994 was the most recent of the works performed and came across just as he described it, as an “affirmation of God’s grace to the meek….. a quiet song of profound inner joy”. Yet another style was represented by

John Tavener’s canon Hymn to the Mother of God with its Eastern Orthodox influences which was quite stunning. The concert ended robustly with Finzi’s God Is Gone Up, and caused a stir with its joyous martial rhythms and outpouring of praise.

So I needn’t have worried and consider full marks are due to the young singers and their conductor/trainer Tim Johnson. I didn’t look round to see ifRalph Allwood was lurking behind a pillar keeping an eye on the progress of the concert, but I rather suspect that in his retirement he will continue to play an active role in introducing young people to our cherished tradition of English choral music.

Roger Jones