Blackburn Remembers Ireland’s Idealistic Vision from the 1930s

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar Walton Vaughan Williams: Mark Rowlinson (baritone) The Appeal Choir of Blackburn Cathedral, The Choir of Stonyhurst College, Northern Chamber Orchestra/Samuel Hudson. Blackburn Cathedral, 13.10.2012 (RB)

John Ireland:The Forgotten Rite
Elgar: Give unto the Lord
John Ireland: These Things Shall Be
Walton: Prelude and Spitfire Fugue
John Ireland:The Holy Boy
John Ireland:Greater Love hath no man
Vaughan Williams: Five Mystical Songs

More Vaughan Williams – this time in Blackburn. Less than a month ago I heard Dona Nobis Pacem at Manchester Cathedral. Last night we had RVW’s Five Mystical Songs. More of that later. The concert formed the culmination of an Ireland season that was the central span of the Blackburn Cathedral Appeal.

2012 saw concerts and other events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Ireland. Allowing for the intensely concentrated John Ireland season that formed part of the Chelsea Festival (21-25 June 2012) Blackburn’s year long Ireland celebration of the music has been the most ambitious. True, Ireland put in an appearance at the Proms (31 July) with These Things Shall Be given by Rachmaninov expert Tadaaki Otaka, Jonathan Lemalu and massed Welsh forces but that was just one work – albeit one of his finest. On 1 June we had the rarely encountered and subtle Legend for piano and orchestra at Em Marshall-Luck’s English Music Festival at Dorchester-on-Thames. The pianist there was Ireland devotee Mark Bebbington with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates. Friendly Blackburn Cathedral has had concert after concert since March. This one was the most impressive in programming terms. The augmented Northern Chamber Orchestra and choirs were conducted by the valiant instigator of the Ireland season, Samuel Hudson. Ambition is one thing and accomplishment another. Blackburn and Hudson carried off both with style.

We began with that most understated and atmospherically evocative of Ireland works – The Forgotten Rite. It’s a short impressionistic piece, most delicately orchestrated and full of finely detailed invention. It is the gentle face of Ireland’s absorption with pagan history and reminded me of Griffes’ White Peacock and Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. It is a brother to the later and even darker Legend though the inspiration came from Ireland’s beloved Channel Isles rather than the Sussex Downlands. It’s a masterly piece that received an aptly measured pensive pacing. The Cathedral acoustic did at one climactic point rather smear the orchestral weave but this was a very fine performance with some relishably prominent contributions from harp and celesta. Then came Elgar’s rousing Give unto the Lord. This is ‘the full works’: the grand Elgar in microcosm and very effective indeed. It was stirringly done with echoes of the great oratorios and of the Second Symphony along the way. The words were included in the free programme which was just as well as they were indistinguishable in the stone cathedral space. The Appeal Choir and young choristers from Stonyhurst College – some of whom were in carmine chorister gowns – made a brave noise and there was sturdy work for drums and brass.

Ireland’s These Things Shall Be is a work of epic themes – peace and world fraternity – all in a short time-span. Like the RVW Dona Nobis Pacem it was written in 1936 and has peace as its theme. Its brief but telling use of The Internationale has lent it some notoriety – at least until neglect engulfed it in indifference. Last night there were some louder episodes when the sound became blurred but these fleeting moments were eradicated by a performance of blazing vehemence and nobility. This work conveys world unity and the end of war. It was bound in many quarters to attract the same derision that greeted the EU being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However as a Millenarian pacifist vision it is a good one for which to strive even if there has been a world of conflict to bear out the cynics. All the works in the concert were concise but in its 25 minutes These Things Shall Be encompasses true grandeur.

My impressions of the performance? The child choristers sang out with utter dedication, the resentful rattle of the side-drum, the gruff brass, moments of pastoral calm too easily lost amid the torrents, the ethereally exposed high singing of the choristers and women in a moment similar to those encountered in Patrick Hadley’s The Trees So High and the accomplished serenity of the horn solo referencing that anthem to internationalism. There’s also the understated but magical moment when Mark Rowlinson’s sonorous solo verse ends on the word ‘fraternity’ – a word devastatingly punched home by the choir quietly also singing the same word: no longer a single voice but a community statement. The sweeping arm gestures of young Sam Hudson already tall were made towering and unmistakable as he stood on the podium. Interesting to note that the author of the words, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), was a pupil of Walt Whitman whose poetry is set in the contemporaneous RVW Dona Nobis Pacem. The ninety strong choir was notable for its youthful age profile; the exact opposite of the choir that sang in Manchester Cathedral.

The second half of the concert included the all-out flamboyant heroics of the bipartite Walton. Let’s just pass by the acid irony of its WW2 inspiration after Ireland’s pacifist vision. The romantic violin solo was taken by the leader in silvery filigree: more Yfrah Neaman finery than Oistrakh luxury but very effective against the predominant and glorious heroics. Ireland’s Holy Boy is the softest sough of a piece and was heard in its rare full orchestra edition. It recalled the equally effective Bridge Rosemary and the Elgar Saluts. The Ireland Greater Love hath no man has its moments and is by turns reflective, noble and fleetingly exalted. RVW’s Five Mystical Songs concluded the evening. Rowlinson was in fine form, shaping his singing with great intelligence and sensitivity to the words. Easter was overwhelming and the subdued emphasis given to the parenthetic words ‘and much more’ was just right. It is touches like that that identify the true artist. Love Bade Me Welcome was magically done – the mingled meeting place of the devotional and the pastoral. In the final Antiphon I have never heard the horn-calls that limn the exuberantly rhythmic introduction with such clarity. It romped along in tireless exultation and shook the candy twist scrolled vaulted ceiling.

The sponsors for the concert included the charitable trusts for RVW, Percy Whitlock and John Ireland; indeed Bruce Phillips, a true Ireland paladin and Director of the Ireland Trust spoke with gratitude between the Walton and the Ireland Holy Boy. The Friends of Blackburn Cathedral Music were also generous contributors. However Booths, the Northern supermarket chain (a cut above in the Sainsbury and Waitrose league) should receive special recognition. They were the only non-music based sponsor. All credit to them.

You can hear These Things again at Romsey Abbey on 10 November though that fixture conflicts with The Forgotten Rite as part of another enterprising British concert (with Bantock Fifine and Elgar Musicmakers) at St Michael and All Angels, Macclesfield.

Whether Ireland’s music will take off in the way that Finzi’s has since the 1970s I doubt it, though it deserves to. Its sophisticated and poetically pastel-coloured ways probably tell against widespread popularity. That said it stood shoulder high in the company of the music of three other greats of the English Musical renaissance last night.

Rob Barnett