United Kingdom Burton, Howells, Fauré: The Exon Singers with George Humphreys (baritone), Aimee Presswood (soprano), Jeffrey Makinson (organ), Zeitgeist Chamber Orchestra / Richard Wilberforce (conductor), Tavistock Parish Church, Tavistock, 25.7.2015 (PRB)
James Burton: The Convergence of the Twain
The Exon Singers were founded in 1966 and, since 1973, have organised an annual festival, centred on the historic market and Stannary town of Tavistock, which lies on the edge of Dartmoor, in the county of Devon – part of England’s far South West Peninsula. In addition, the week’s programme involves a BBC live broadcast from the nearby medieval Benedictine monastery, Buckfast Abbey. While, of course, there have been numerous changes of personnel over the years, members of the 30-strong ensemble still billet with host families in the area, reinforcing the feeling of community involvement as each successive festival comes and goes. The week’s culmination is the Festival Finale Concert, which commemorates the 49th Festival as such, and the 42nd to take place in Tavistock.
If the success of any musical performance could simply be calculated from the sum of its individual parts, then this superb evening of choral music from The Exon Singers would surely have merited full marks.
Here was an exceptionally well-disciplined and balanced ensemble that clearly had outstanding voices to each part, but who melded so perfectly, whether in breath-taking pianissimos, or spine-tingling fortissimos. While it would be invidious to pick one section for special mention, the sopranos have such a wonderful ability to sing as one, soaring effortlessly to their high notes, and propelling the ensemble with great verve. Even when a full-blooded sound is called for, there is never any hint whatsoever of vocal asperity, or piercing shrillness.
It was also so very refreshing to open the programme with a work written just a couple of years ago. James Burton’s The Convergence of the Twain – a setting of Thomas Hardy’s (1840-1928) poem on the loss of the ‘Titanic’ – proved an immensely heart-felt, evocative piece, brim full of melodic invention, and where the musical craftsmanship so evidently bore the hallmark of a composer who really did understand his art. The first two performances of the work were given at the St Endellion Easter Festival in Cornwall in 2012 – a few days before the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster. As is often the case, the composer – on this occasion, this year’s festival’s composer-in-residence – was called to the front to talk about what the audience is shortly to hear. Sadly, on many occasions this explanation can become even more convoluted than the musical argument subsequently expressed, and often tends to leave listeners none the wiser, nor any better-prepared for what is to follow.
This time, however, Exon Singers’ Artistic Director and conductor, Richard Wilberforce, asked specific and well-targeted questions of Burton, whose responses were always to the point, and couched in terms for all to appreciate. Apart from the undoubted success of this kind of interview-introduction, it further confirmed Burton’s single-mindedness in setting Hardy’s text.
After the ravishing harmonies and chordal juxtapositions of this opening work, Herbert Howells’s unaccompanied Requiem proved an ideal follow-on. This is glorious writing from a composer, coming to terms with the death of his nine-year-old son from polio in 1935. The performance was given with great poignancy, and was an extremely moving experience, further enhanced by the venue’s sympathetic acoustic.
In 2014, the Exon Singers’ Festival introduced a new element, whereby a number of interested – but not necessarily professional – local voices came together to form the Exon Festival Chorus, with a preparatory workshop at the start of the week, enabling them to combine with the Exon Singers proper in a joint work at the end of the festival. This proved so successful that it was repeated this year, this time with Fauré’s Requiem as the collaborative work, and festival-closer.
On the day Fauré’s sublime creation, paradoxically a performance to die for, saw the Exon Singers and the specially-convened Exon Festival Chorus combine absolutely seamlessly, with the two quite distinct forces singing as one voice throughout.
The overall credit for this must go to Richard Wilberforce, whose inspired direction was simply first-rate, both on the night, and in working so efficiently beforehand with his local singers, eminently able to get the very best out of them within a limited time-scale. However, the contribution from outstanding soloists, George Humphreys (baritone) and Aimee Presswood (soprano), particularly her quite enthralling rendition of Fauré’s Pie Jesu, the impressive instrumental support both from Zeitgeist Chamber Orchestra, led by Henry Chandler, and organist Jeffrey Makinson, were all equally conducive in helping to make this quite the perfect concert, as well as the perfect end to a week of some exceptional music-making.
Philip R Buttall