United Kingdom Tallis, Victoria, Palestrina, Parsons, Weir, Kendall, Andrew, Tabakova, Tavener Duruflé: Esther Brazil (mezzo sporano), Nicholas Morton (baritone), Choir of Merton College Oxford, St Cecilia Singers, Oriel Singers, Guy Johnston (cello), Carleton Etherington (organ) / Benjamin Nicholas (conductor), Gloucester Cathedral, 8.7.2014.
Thomas Tallis: Videte miraculum
Tomás Luis de Victoria: Ave Maria
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Alma redemptoris mater
Robert Parsons: Ave Maria
Four Marian Antiphons (world premiere)
Judith Weir: Ave regina caelorum
Hannah Kendall: Regina caeli
Kerry Andrew: Salve regina
Dobrinka Tabakova: Alma redemptoris mater
John Tavener: Two Hymns to the Mother of God; Song for Athene
Maurice Duruflé: Requiem
Women composers (British, American and Polish) are exceptionally well represented at this Cheltenham Festival – and, of course, have also featured in past Festivals, as Rhiannon Mathias reminds us in her article in the Festival programme book. Now that a British woman – Judith Weir – is to be appointed to the prestigious post of Master of the Queen’s Musick, I felt just a little peeved that in a symposium on Women Composers before this concert the British musical establishment should be condemned as being “pale, male and stale”. I would have thought attitudes had moved on since Dame Ethel Smyth’s time and nowadays compositions have a much better chance of exposure, no matter what gender the composer is. To be fair, one of the panel, Dobrinka Tabakova, insisted that she had received nothing but encouragement in her quest to become a composer, but perhaps her Bulgarian origins have engendered a less defeatist or more ”can do” attitude on her part.
She was one of the composers featured in the first part of a choral concert devoted to motets and antiphions in honour of the Virgin Mary. I tend to dread concerts in Gloucester Cathedral especially when late Romantic works played by an enormous symphony orchestra are programmed, but a capella music works well in its vast spaces and the 16th century music performed by the Choir of Merton College, Oxford was a joy to listen to. From the highly decorated music of Tallis to the comparative simplicity of the Palestrina hymn the choristers acquitted themselves with distinction.
There were much greater differences between the choral pieces making up the Four Marian Antiphons. I admired Judith Weir’s Ave Regina Caelorum for its clarity and the close rapport between words and music as well as the wonderful aves which seemed to float on the air. Hannah Kendall’s Regina Caeli was more orchestral in scope, intricate in construction and with a dissonance which tended to mask the words. Kerry Andrew’s Salve Regina felt rather cluttered with too many musical ideas to form a coherent message. By contrast, Dobrinka Tabakova’s Alma redemptoris mater for all its modernity seemed rooted in the English choral tradition. It had strong elements of Gregorian chant and the Merton Singers appeared very comfortable performing it. It could have been tailor made for the acoustic of the mighty cathedral.
Sir John Tavener was due to be celebrating his 70th birthday at the 70th Cheltenham Festival, but tragically this was not to be. Still, it was good to have a few short pieces by Sir John representing a very different tradition of liturgical music with a strong sense of inner stillness.
There was something of an inner stillness also in Duruflé’s Requiem which made up the second half of the concert. For this pewrformance the Merton College Choir were joined by two local chamber choirs and organist Carleton Etherington. Calmer and more meditative than other more popular requiems, notably those of Verdi and Mozart, there is a certain reticence about its opening, as if it is from a man in a state of shock over a death. But at the end of the Introit the prospect of lux perpetua lightens the gloom. The plea to be delivered from the pains of hell is heartfelt, and later the baritone voice of Nicholas Morton reinforces the message as he recalls God’s promise to Abraham. The Pie Jesu sung with such clarity and distinction by the Californian mezzo Esther Brazil, with a beautifully realised cello obbligato by Guy Johnston, brought to mind Fauré’s sublime and poignant version of this poem. A sense of terror and anguish came out in the men’s singing of the Libera me, and although Duruflé omits some of the more terrifying parts of the Dies irae, a hint of dark menace underscores this section. Fortunately Paradise beckons and after enduring the dark night of the soul the choirs brought forth some moments of sublime music in the conclusion to this work.
If a performance speaks to the heart, as this one did under Benjamin Nicholas’ calm and assured direction, then it has to be judged a success.