Royal Holloway Alumna and Choir Celebrate Britten and Poulenc

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Pitts, Plakidis, Michael Berkeley, Poulenc, Gabriel Jackson: Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano), The Choir of Royal Holloway, Rupert Gough (director), Cheltenham Music Festival, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 12.7.2013 (JQ)

Britten: Hymn to St Cecilia (1942)
Fancie (1961)
Fish in the unruffled lakes (1938)

Trad. Arr. Britten:
The Ash Grove (1941/42)
La belle est au Jardin d’amour (1942)
Quand j’étais chez mon père (1942)
Sweet Polly Oliver (1945/46)
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930).
Antony Pitts: They shall awake (2013) – première
Peteris Plakidis: In memoriam (1990)
Michael Berkeley: Echo: Homage à Francis Poulenc (2008);
Her Secret (1976)
Poulenc: La courte paille (1960);
Violon (from Fiançailles pour rire) (1930);
Le petit garçon trop bien portant (from Quatre Chansons pour Enfants) (1934);
Poulenc: Ave verum (1952)
Vinea mea electa (from Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence) (1938)
Gabriel Jackson: La musique (2013) – première

This was a concert with so many connections that one almost lost count. The main purpose was to celebrate the anniversaries of Britten and Poulenc, who were friends. A piece in homage to Poulenc by Michael Berkeley, a former director of the Cheltenham Music Festival, was included in the programme. Berkeley, who was present, was Britten’s godson, and his father, Sir Lennox, was a friend of both Britten and Poulenc. Dame Felicity Lott, surely the doyenne of Anglophone interpreters of mélodies, made a welcome return to her home town and was joined by the Choir of Royal Holloway of which college Dame Felicity is an alumna. Finally, Gabriel Jackson’s new piece cunningly interwove the English and French strands of the programme.

The Royal Holloway choir has achieved a considerable reputation in recent years under the leadership of Rupert Gough, their Director since 2005. Gough has led, among many other things, an exploration of the rich choral music of the Baltic States and two examples of this music were to be heard in this concert. The choir opened proceedings with Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia. Immediately the choir’s sound was impressive with a firm bass line, light, sappy tenor tone and an appealingly fresh sound from the ladies. The choir’s sound was well-focussed and the words were well articulated. Tuning and balance seemed faultless and individual solo parts were well taken. Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin – an astonishingly assured and inventive composition by a precocious schoolboy! – was equally successful though, arguably, the acoustic of the Pittville Pump Room was not right for this music; the sound was a little too ‘present’ in this fairly small hall and the fine performance would have sounded even better in a more resonant building. The excellent semi-chorus quartet was positioned in the central dome gallery high above the audience.

After the interval we heard In memoriam by the Latvian composer, Peteris Plakidis (b. 1990). Rupert Gough, introducing the piece, admitted it had no real connection with the rest of the programme. However, the choir is just back from a two-week tour of the Baltic States and the piece is included on their latest CD. The piece, which was sung in English, consisted, in essence, of a slow chorale around which, almost continually, soprano voices sang gently lilting, decorative lines in triple time. The piece is direct in expression and haunting and I must get the disc to hear it again. The choir later gave impressive performances of two pieces by Poulenc, both choice examples of his lovely church music.

Felicity Lott offered a good helping of Poulenc’s songs in the second half of the programme but she began with Britten, connecting with the audience from the outset, as she always does. Fish in the unruffled lakes is an Auden setting, intended as part of a cycle to follow up On This Island. That project remained uncompleted but this song is a most attractive one, not least for its rippling, watery piano part. The renditions of some of Britten’s folksong arrangements, including two of the French settings made for Sophie Wyss, were a delight. I loved the charming way in which Dame Felicity related the tale of Sweet Polly Oliver while her infectious performance of Quand j’étais chez mon père had me chuckling throughout. It was a pity that during this half of the programme the audience applauded each and every song, often not even waiting for the last note to die away.

In the second half we heard two settings by Michael Berkeley. Echo is an explicit homage to Poulenc and a very successful one at that. The slow, languorous music with its bitter-sweet harmonies is redolent of Poulenc but no mere pastiche. I’d not heard it before but I loved it and I loved the sophisticated, committed performance. Her Secret is from a Hardy cycle, Wessex Groves. It may not be an explicit homage to Britten but it seems to me to do more than doff its cap towards Britten’s folk song arrangements. Dame Felicity was an ideal and very communicative interpreter.

I doubt there’s ever been a better English interpreter of melodies than Felicity Lott. Surely it’s not without significance that as a student at Royal Holloway she studied not music but French – and Latin. Here her Poulenc performances were a delight. She was equally successful in the humorous, tongue-in-cheek numbers as in those where Poulenc’s lyrical, wistful trait is to the fore. Thus she was able to put across Poulenc’s last cycle, La courte paille, most convincingly. She was very much the Grande Dame in her account of Violon while Le petit garçon trop bien portant was vastly entertaining. In these Poulenc songs, as in everything else, Joseph Middleton was an ideal and highly skilled partner for Dame Felicity.

Each half of the programme concluded with a first performance. I’ve heard some of Antony Pitts’ music previously on CD, including a disc devoted to some of his choral music (review) so I was keen to hear this latest piece. Apparently They shall awake forms an appendix to Pitts’ Requiem which was inspired by the death of Alexander Litvinenko. It was poignant then, if coincidental, that as I was driving to the concert I heard on the BBC News that the British government had just declined to hold a public enquiry into the circumstances surrounding Litvinenko’s murder in 2006. In this piece Pitts sets words from a sermon preached by John Donne in 1627/8: part of this wonderful text was also used by William Harris in his fine anthem Bring us O Lord God. Pitts responds to the image-rich words with very intense music. The choral textures are rich and full and the writing often includes long melodic lines, especially for the sopranos. The harmonic language is adventurous yet the music is always accessible despite the complex tonality. The piece followed immediately after Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin so the semi chorus was once again positioned in the gallery, to excellent effect. This is an arresting and impressive piece that grabbed and held my attention. The composer, who was present, was clearly delighted by the performance.

Delighted, too, was Gabriel Jackson after the first performance of La musique, which closed the programme. Commissioned by tonight’s performers and, presumably, with this programme in mind, the piece brought about a happy fusion of English and French for Jackson had the inspired idea of setting simultaneously the poem by Baudelaire which gives the piece its title (in French, for the soprano soloist) and a poem in English, ‘I am in need of music’ by the American poet, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979); this is sung by the choir. The music is attractive and beautifully imagined; this is another example of Jackson’s highly inventive ear for unaccompanied choral textures. The soprano solo line, which is a gift for a singer like Dame Felicity, contrasts with and complements the choral parts most effectively. The wonderful harmonies to which the choir sings the words ‘There is a magic made by melody’ are particularly ear-catching and from here on the music is gorgeously expressive. The rapt ending, the choir singing hushed chords over which the soprano soars gently and ecstatically, was extremely effective.

With typical generosity Dame Felicity insisted that the choir provided the encore. They offered a second item from their latest CD, Lugums nachtij (‘Prayer to the night’) by another Latvian composer, Arturs Maskats (b. 1957). This hauntingly beautiful short piece, sung from memory and in the original language was a lovely way to end a splendidly executed and thoughtfully constructed programme.

John Quinn