Pleas for Peace in Manchester Cathedral

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Arnold, Vaughan Williams: Jo Rondel (mezzo), Robert O’Connell (baritone), Cheshire Sinfonia and Chorale / Peter Stallworthy (conductor),  Third Manchester Peace Festival, Manchester Cathedral, 29.9.2012 (RB)

Malcolm Arnold: Peterloo Overture
Nick Wilding: John Bright and the Angel of Death (film)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem

This was a concert which defied convention. It mixed spoken word, film and music elements that were often, though not always, separated. Peace was the theme but always in contrast with savagery. The concert was well worth the outlay – even if the cost of nearby car parking amounted to the cost of another ticket at the concert – and I was sorry to have missed the Festival’s Hanns Eisler celebration the night before.

The Cathedral concert was held in the reassuring and surprisingly warm pocket-cathedral spaces of Manchester Cathedral. Along the way there were brief speeches from Canon Andrew Shanks and at the close a local CND official. We also heard from the film-maker and instigating eminence behind the evening, the Calderdale-based film director Nick Wilding.

Each of the two works traversed serenity and violence: Arnold’s Peterloo Overture I never thought much of until now. In my mind it has always been a sort of appendage to Arnold’s superb Fifth Symphony – if only because it was coupled with the Fifth on an EMI audio-cassette when first recorded. It seemed then in the 1970s to be raucous and vacuous. In the hands of Peter Stallworthy and heard live by me for the first time it took on greater substance. Its parabola was from a dignified under-stated hymn of the people to a murderous onslaught as the Riot Act empowered dragoons in 1825 to sabre their way through the crowds at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester and then  back to peaceful confidence. Its close, complete with a carillon on tubular bells was very satisfying. This is so much more than the jobsworth piece d’occasion that might have been guessed at from its TUC commission. The strings were restrained yet silkily beatific. The brass and percussion onslaught pulled no punches and reminded me of the side-drum assault in Nielsen 4 and the blitzkrieg in Shostakovich 7. It is strange that it should have taken me so long to make these connections.

The rarely heard Arnold overture was preceded by Nick Wilding’s tellingly untheatrical reading of Sam Bamford’s eye-witness account of the Peterloo massacre. In this stone acoustic I could not always make out what he was saying and a more forthright delivery would have helped. The Arnold was followed by Mr Wilding’s very effective 30 minute film – John Bright and the Angel of Death. British music lovers will remember the Manchester MP’s name because of his Angel of Death speech set by RVW in Dona Nobis Pacem. The film achieved much through some clever superimposition of protest footage linked with the war in Afghanistan together with an account of the events of the Crimean war of which Bright spoke in dignified condemnation in the House of Commons. Bright was played most effectively and with conviction by John Stride, a familiar face from 1970s TV here complete with mutton chop whiskers.  I have a minor criticism amongst so much good work: on the soundtrack we hear RVW’s first name pronounced as RALF rather than the correct RAFE suggesting a background more in protest history than in music – a small matter. The other star feature involved the many pencil drawings illustrating the Crimean war and the pity of war. Some of these were minimally, yet artfully, animated – the artist deserves to take a bow. I am sorry that I did not catch his name among the credits. Those images did more for the subject than the contemporary drawings also used by Wilding which smacked more of sulphuric satire than reportage. Audiences could provide their own commentary without the benefit of stale Victorian attitudinising.

After a 20 minute interval came the main work of the evening, Dona Nobis Pacem. Bright was condemned for being anti-patriotic in attacking the Crimean War. Had Vaughan Williams been a contemporary of Bright’s I am sure that he would fearlessly have taken up Bright’s cause in the same way that he did for the communist composer Alan Bush when the BBC banned performances of Bush’s works. As for Dona Nobis Pacem it invoked peace in the turbulent and louring 1930s. It does so with music of great power and sets words from Whitman, The Bible and Bright. The 52 strong orchestra and specially formed 38 person choir were not overly large for such a work but their total identification with the music was channelled intelligently in this complicated space to punch above its collective weight. Tempi were in line with those adopted by Boult in the famous early 1970s EMI recording but Stallworthy injected a protean fury to the more impetuous passages; at those points what we heard was more tempestuous Fourth Symphony than the seraphic glow of the Serenade to Music. That said, the Serenade – which lay only two years in the future – is foreshadowed in the sixth and final section. Whitman is and was much set by composers of the British Musical Renaissance. His words figured in another anthology work which Vaughan Williams would have known from the 1920s: Morning Heroes. Bliss’s The City Arming – all pell-mell bustle and anger –  even more tumultuous than the RVW setting – uses related Whitman words for Beat, Beat Drums. Bliss did not set Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans – though RVW’s friend Holst did. The guest leader Pia Oliver acted as the lyrical kindling for several ineffably tender passages when the pomp and climactic glories of the moment passed. Among these was the section in the Dirge where the violins evoke the rising moon in shimmering delicacy.

The two soloists stood to the front and left of the main performing space. Jo Rondel was pure of voice with only the slightest trace of vibrato – her voice was well suited to the connective tissue of those recurrent cries of Dona Nobis Pacem. Vaughan Williams’ writing here looks forward to the last or later works including the Three Vocalises and the Sinfonia Antartica and backwards to the vocalises in his Pastoral Symphony. Rondel was called on to tackle some extremely exposed writing and met every challenge with a soaring confidence that released the listener to revel in the music. Robert O’Connell was also very good and clear. His pronunciation through – and over – the music brought the message home. That said, by comparison with John Carol Case all those years ago on Boult’s recording O’Connell under-characterised the words: ‘you may almost hear the beating of his wings’. It was presented low key where with Case you could hear the steady beating of the wings.

Overall this was a performance that had this listener convinced that Dona Nobis Pacem is amongst RVW’s most gripping works whether in its poetic tenderness, in the beating of the ‘the great convulsive drums’ or the paean at the close that exults in ‘the new heavens’ and ‘the new earth’.

The North-West is doing well by major English choral works with pacifist themes. John Ireland’s These Things Shall Be and his Greater Love hath no man are being done at Blackburn Cathedral as the climax of their little-sung Ireland celebration. That’s on 13 October 2012 at 7.30pm. I plan to cover it for Seen and Heard. Also on the programme are Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs, Elgar Give unto the Lord and Walton Prelude and Spitfire Fugue: The Northern Chamber Orchestra will be conducted by Samuel Hudson and the solo baritone is Mark Rowlinson. Tickets can be purchased by phone: 01254 503082 (Tuesday – Thursday 10:00am – 2:30pm) or by emailing


Rob Barnett