An Outstanding Performance of Bob Chilcott’s Requiem in Wells Cathedral

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Walton, Handel, Mozart, Parry, Chilcott: Laurie Ashworth (soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), The Blandiver Ensemble, Jonathan Vaughn (organ), Wells Cathedral Choir, Matthew Owens (conductor) Wells Cathedral 5.5.2012 (JQ)

Walton – Coronation Te Deum
Handel – Zadok the Priest, HWV 258
Mozart – Mass in C major, K317, ‘Coronation’ – Gloria & Agnus Dei
Bob Chilcott – Jesus, Springing
Parry – I was Glad
Chilcott – Requiem

I have heard Matthew Owens and the choir of Wells Cathedral many times on disc but I’ve never been able to attend a live performance by them. This, then, was a good opportunity to ascertain whether they’re as good ‘in the flesh’ as they sound on CD. The answer to that is resoundingly in the affirmative. This is a choir that sings with freshness and vitality: the trebles – a mixture of boys and girls – are incisive and the men produce a fine, virile sound. The choir is well balanced, accurate, responsive to the music and the sound is very well focused. Clearly, Matthew Owens has prepared them expertly and they flourish under his direction.

The other attraction of this concert was an opportunity to hear a live performance of Bob Chilcott’s 2010 Requiem because recently I’d warmly welcomed the choir’s première recording of the work.

Appropriately, in this Diamond Jubilee year, the first half of the programme followed a Coronation theme. At either end we heard twentieth-century English coronation pieces. Walton’s marvellous Te Deum, written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, was given a vivid, exciting performance; I liked especially the way Matthew Owens ensured that Walton’s vital rhythms were enunciated crisply. Parry’s majestic I was Glad was written for an earlier coronation, that of Edward VII in 1902. This is quintessential English ceremonial music. Owens ensured the music had breadth and space but also imparted momentum and the choir sang with huge conviction. Both of these pieces have stunning organ parts and Jonathan Vaughn’s contribution from the organ console was enormously effective; in fact his splendid playing was a notable feature throughout the evening. The Handel and Mozart pieces were given good and energetic performances and in the Agnus Dei from the Mozart Mass Laurie Ashworth, leading a solo quartet otherwise drawn from the choir, gave a delightful rendition of the important soprano solo.

At first sight the inclusion into this company of Bob Chilcott’s short Christmas piece, Jesus, Springing seemed odd, even though Matthew Owens fairly pointed out that the text by Kevin Crossley-Holland is as appropriate to Eastertide as to Christmas. I suspect that the piece was included as a ‘taster’ for the Requiem; after all, many in the audience may not have heard Chilcott’s music before. If that was the thinking it worked very well for during the interval I heard several audience members commenting enthusiastically about the piece. Anyway, having enjoyed the piece very much on the choir’s Chilcott CD I wasn’t going to complain about a chance to hear it live and it was beautifully delivered; what a pity that at the very end, as the music achieves a quiet close, someone knocked over a bottle somewhere in the distance, spoiling the moment.

After the interval Chilcott’s Requiem proved as successful in live performance as on disc. Like the Requiems of Duruflé, Fauré and Rutter this is a work that focuses on the reflective, consolatory side of the Mass for the Dead; there is no fire and brimstone Dies Irae, nor does the ‘tuba mirum’ resound. This is primarily a delicate and lyrical setting, though that’s not to say that the music lacks backbone. Pragmatically, Chilcott has scored the work with two alternative and equally valid accompaniments. One version is for a relatively modest orchestra. The other requires a small ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, timpani and organ. The ensemble version is the one that Matthew Owens used for his recording and it’s what we heard in this performance. Not only does such restrained scoring make the work financially within the reach of amateur choral societies but also it makes the music very intimate – I should guess the Wells choir numbered about forty singers. I thought this light scoring came off really well in performance.

Laurie Ashworth was the soprano soloist on the CD and, as on that recording, her voice seemed well suited to the music. The soprano has the “plum” movement, the ‘Pie Jesu’ and Miss Ashworth gave a winning account of it. It’s an inspired piece of scoring by Chilcott to give the clarinet a leading role in this movement because the instrument’s reedy sound presents a most effective contrast with the soprano voice, especially when, as here, the vocal soloist sings with such a pleasingly warm yet clear tone. Miss Ashworth’s singing gave great pleasure throughout the work. Her partner was the young tenor, Anthony Gregory. He didn’t take part in the recording though I have heard him sing before. He makes a good sound and I enjoyed the gentle yet ringing timbre that he brought to the ‘Hostias’ in the ‘Offertorio’ second movement. He sang plangently and with good expression in the Agnus Dei, where the tenor has the leading part. My only reservation was to wonder how audible Mr Gregory was for the audience seated towards the rear of the nave. This is music that surely sounds best with the sort of essentially light voice that Gregory has and from where I was seated, near the front, there was no problem in hearing him but, even though the nave at Wells Cathedral isn’t particularly long I wonder how well his voice carried to the back. Nonetheless, he sang with sensitivity and clarity.

The choir’s contribution was very fine indeed; one had the impression that, schooled by Matthew Owens, they have really got under the skin of this music. I liked the dark tone that the tenors and basses produced in the ‘Offertorio’ and, indeed, the whole choir sang with suitable fervour in this movement. The Sanctus was truly joyful thanks to the choir’s bright, focussed sound and the spring they injected into Chilcott’s clever irregular rhythms. In the sixth movement, ‘Thou knowest, Lord’ (the only part of the work that’s in English), the music steps up a gear in terms of intensity; perhaps that’s why it’s my favourite movement. Here the Wells singers responded with eloquent singing and then, in the concluding ‘Lux aeterna’, where Chilcott’s music is luminous and gently consoling, the choir and soloists made a beautiful sound, bring the work to a moving conclusion. The audience responded very warmly indeed to the performance, confirming the suspicion I’ve had since hearing the CD that Chilcott’s Requiem is likely to establish a secure place in the choral repertoire. The composer, who was present, was clearly – and rightly – delighted by the very fine performance of a work that I suspect means a great deal to him.

The concert was given to support the work of the Wells Cathedral Chorister Trust. The Trust exists to provide financial support for the education of the cathedral’s choristers so that no talented child will be inhibited financially from taking up a place in the choir; thus, the future of the choir and its high standards will be safeguarded. On the evidence of the splendid singing in this concert the Trust is a most worthy cause.

John Quinn