An impressive James MacMillan première in Coventry Cathedral

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Coventry Cathedral Golden Jubilee Concert. Coventry Cathedral, 23.6.2012. (JQ)

Britten (1913-1976) – St. Nicholas Cantata, Op. 42
Neil Cox (b. 1955) – War in Heaven
James MacMillan (b. 1959) – Gloria (world première)

Ian Bostridge (tenor)
St. Michael’s Singers
Choristers of Coventry Cathedral
Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School for Girls Chamber Choir (Gallery Choir)
Cannon Park Primary School
Ravensdale Primary School Choir
Stivichall Primary School Choir
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Kerry Beaumont, Laurence Lyndon-Jones (organ)
Paul Leddington-Wright & James MacMillan (conductors)

Coventry Cathedral is certainly celebrating in style the 50th anniversary of its consecration. Only about three weeks ago there was a fine and moving performance of Britten’s War Requiem (review) and this Golden Jubilee concert was equally memorable.

There were some pleasing symmetries to the programme. Britten’s St. Nicholas was written for the centenary of the public school, Lancing College in 1948. Neil Cox, who wrote War in Heaven for Coventry Cathedral in 1980, has been Director of Music in Lancing College Chapel since 1978. The Cathedral commissioned War Requiem, along with other music, to mark its opening so it was fitting that the 50th anniversary commission piece, by James MacMillan, should sit in the same programme as another work by Britten.

For St. Nicholas the St. Michael’s Singers, a group about 80-strong, was joined on the platform by serried ranks of children. The young singers, who had evidently been very well prepared, gave a very good account of themselves. They sang their contributions with confident clarity and they made a delightfully fresh sound. I was especially impressed that they sang everything from memory. The somewhat older pupils of Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School for Girls formed a very fine Gallery Choir. They were positioned behind all the other performers and projected their voices through a sizeable gap between the two halves of the main choirs. The distancing was very well judged and these young girls’ pure voices made a strong impression.

The St. Michael’s Singers did well. Sometimes, even from my seat about 10 rows from the front, the choral parts weren’t ideally clear. This wasn’t the fault of the singers, who sang with excellent commitment; it was more a question of the size of the choir in such a big acoustic. For example, the men were valiant in the fourth movement – “Nicolas sails for Palestine” – but I suspect that many in the audience behind me would have found it hard to hear them properly – I counted 11 tenors and 15 basses – not least because the percussion rather overwhelmed them at times. Equally, Britten’s rather conventional fugue in the next movement wasn’t always very clear. On the other hand, in the penultimate movement, when the choir sang of Nicholas’s deeds, the instrumental scoring was lighter and we could hear that they were singing very well indeed. Paul Leddington-Wright conducted very well, obviously imparting his own commitment to the piece to everyone else on the platform.

The unnamed boy chorister who took the part of the young Nicholas sang splendidly; his voice rang out confidently and clearly. His three colleagues who took the roles of the Pickled Boys also did very well and their entrance, from part way down the nave, was very well brought off.

However, the performance was dominated by Ian Bostridge as St. Nicholas. He was simply outstanding. From his very first solo he set his stall out, his voice clear and ringing. His tone has a typically English tenor plangency and it’s quite light but there’s a real touch of steel when necessary. Apart from the sheer quality of the sound he produced I was especially impressed with the clarity of his diction. Granted, I know the work quite well but I had no need whatsoever to refer to the libretto to make out what he was singing. Moreover, he sang off the words, using them as a springboard to communicate very directly with the audience. He was really ardent in ‘Nicholas in Prison’, achieved a fine intensity in ‘Nicholas devotes himself to God’ and gave a moving portrayal of the anguished Nicholas on his deathbed in the last movement. I can’t recall hearing a finer, more convincing assumption of the role, whether live or on disc.

After the interval we heard War in Heaven, the brief work, lasting about seven minutes, by Neil Cox. This was commissioned for Coventry cathedral in 1980 and we heard it on this occasion in a new arrangement. The nature of the arrangement wasn’t specified in the programme notes but I suspect it was originally written for choir and organ and that the accompaniment had been expanded to take in the ensemble – three trumpets, two trombones, timpani and percussion – required for the MacMillan piece that was to follow. The text is from the Book of Revelation, describing the battle between Michael and the Angels and the dragon and his Angels, a highly appropriate text since Coventry Cathedral is dedicated to St. Michael. It’s a very exciting piece, often bitingly dramatic and sometimes with quieter music of dark menace. The resources of the cathedral organ, which Cox had specifically in mind when writing the piece, I believe, were thrillingly exploited – and Laurence Lyndon-Jones, the cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music, who played the hugely demanding part magnificently, produced some awesome sounds, not least a long, grumbling deep pedal note at one point. The writing for brass and percussion was tremendously potent. The snag was that while all this was going on the choir was gamely singing yet for the most part it was difficult to hear them because the instrumental parts were so strong. Indeed, I’m not sure that a choir twice as large would have fared much better. The piece is undeniably exciting and very effective but I don’t think I heard it all on this occasion. I should very much like to hear it again in a better balanced performance, possibly a recording. The composer was present and was warmly received.

James MacMillan’s Gloria adds to the scoring for the Cox piece a tenor soloist and a boy’s choir – here the cathedral choristers. The setting lasts about 23 minutes and it’s continuous though divided up into several clearly distinguished sections. One important difference between this piece and the one by Neil Cox was that MacMillan had laid out his piece very shrewdly. Quite often the accompanying instruments played excitingly and loudly but MacMillan cleverly and pragmatically alternated such passages with those in which the choir sang. The result was that the instruments could contribute powerfully yet the choir was always audible. Indeed, this was the item on the programme in which the choir came over best and that was good because they sang MacMillan’s music, which I’m sure is far from easy, with splendid assurance. In several passages the choir was required to sing strongly rhythmical music; these stretches were delivered with great vitality – the St. Michael’s Singers were evidently enjoying meeting MacMillan’s challenges. However, there were also two sections – ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ and ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus’ – where the choir sings a cappella. In these passages their music was homophonic and consonant, beautifully written for voices, and I’m sure the responsive way in which the choir delivered this music must have pleased the composer, who was conducting.

Ian Bostridge had several very demanding and often ornate solo passages to sing and these were negotiated with ringing assurance. The solo vocal line was very wide ranging – in the ‘Domine Deus’, for example – but however low or high MacMillan took his soloist’s voice Bostridge sang superbly. Other tenors will take up the part, I’m sure but its original interpreter has set the bar very high. The Coventry Cathedral choristers excelled whenever they sang, not least in the sprightly ‘Domine Fili unigenite’ and the concluding ‘Amen’. The large audience was clearly impressed, and rightly so: Macmillan was accorded a standing ovation. It’s an impressive work and I’m impatient to hear it again.

After the dismal experience of my encounter with Jonathan Harvey’s Weltethos a couple of days before (review), this new piece by James MacMillan offered reassurance that contemporary composers can and do write works that are musically and intellectually challenging yet which communicate directly and strongly with the audience. Moreover, though MacMillan stretches his performers he doesn’t make outrageous demands on their techniques; his reward is playing and singing that has bite and commitment and, dare one say, belief in the music. I hope – and expect – that this new Gloria will be widely performed; thus Coventry Cathedral will not only have marked its Golden Jubilee in style but will have brought about another significant addition to the choral repertoire and further enhanced its reputation as a major source of inspiration for contemporary artists.

John Quinn