Vaughan Williams’s Deeply Eloquent and Moving Plea for Peace Still Resonates 80 Years Later


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (7) Vaughan Williams, Butterworth: Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin); Johanne Ansell (soprano); Alex Ashworth (baritone); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra/Geraint Bowen (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 26.7. 2016. (JQ)

England’s Glory

Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Butterworth A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody
Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending
Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem

This was a perceptively devised programme. In one evening we had the chance to hear a piece premiered in this very cathedral at a Three Choirs Festival concert in 1910; one of the few surviving works by a young composer cut down almost exactly 100 years ago today at the Battle of the Somme; and a masterpiece largely composed before the Great War but completed after the conflict was over and which musically takes us back to a more innocent world lost for ever as a result of that war. That was just the first half. In the second half we experienced a choral piece that is not heard as often as it should be but which is as relevant today as it was in the mid-1930s when Vaughan Williams wrote it with the storm clouds gathering ever more menacingly over Europe.

Just a couple of weeks ago I attended an excellent concert by the RCM Symphony Orchestra here in Gloucester Cathedral (review). They placed the subsidiary string section on top of the choir screen and I thought the effect was wonderful so I was delighted to see, before tonight’s performance, began that a similar layout had been adopted. The RCM used two conductors for their performance so I was completely unprepared for the fact that the Philharmonia didn’t even use one!. Instead, the concert master, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay directed from the first desk. I’ve never seen this done before though a conversation I chanced to overhear in the interval suggested that the Philharmonia may have played the piece like this before. It worked superbly and the separate string band coordinated perfectly – I presume the cathedral’s cctv set-up was used. Some may have thought the sound of the second orchestra was a little too distanced but it seemed to me that the effect was magical. Visontay kept the music on the move, though without undue haste, in a performance that was often impassioned but always finely nuanced. The orchestra’s four principal players made a splendid job of the solo quartet passages and the rich sound of the full string section was deeply satisfying. One had the sense of a truly collegiate performance. I don’t think that the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia has been heard at the Three Choirs since Sir Roger Norrington’s centenary performance here in 2010 which so disappointed me (review). Tonight’s eloquent performance was significantly superior.

In this otherwise all-Vaughan Williams programme George Butterworth was no interloper for he was a friend of Vaughan Williams and, for example, encouraged him to compose his ‘London’ Symphony, which VW dedicated to Butterworth’s memory. Furthermore, the inclusion of A Shropshire Lad had its own particular poignancy since we are currently marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Having already shown exemplary courage which justified the award of the Military Cross, Butterworth was killed by a German sniper on 5 August, 1916, almost exactly 100 years before the day on which this concert was given. He is one of the thousands whose bodies were never recovered and whose name is inscribed on the memorial at Thiepval. Geraint Bowen took to the rostrum to lead a persuasive account of A Shropshire Lad. The opening pages were wistful as if Butterworth was recalling the English landscape from a distance in both time and physical space. Later, however, the climaxes were properly ardent. This performance reminded me very strongly of the commonality of utterance between this piece and works by Vaughan Williams such as the Norfolk Rhapsody and the ‘London’ Symphony. The Philharmonia played the piece beautifully. It was such a pity that the hushed closing bars were marred by a loud cough from someone in the audience. If people must cough then surely it’s not too much to ask that they make some effort to stifle the noise?

To close the first half we reverted to Vaughan Williams. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay was the soloist in The Lark Ascending. This was, quite simply, a ravishing performance and if I focus on the soloist I must not neglect to mention the very sensitive support that Visontay received from his Philharmonia colleagues. At the start Visontay’s very natural body language as well as the beguiling sound of his violin suggested effortlessly the lark dipping and soaring in the clear sky. The folk-like music in the central section was nicely done, the gently dancing material always lightfooted. The return to the music and mood of the opening section was beautifully managed and eventually Visontay’s lark, seemingly freed from earthly constraints, rose higher and higher into the sky until it was beyond our sight and hearing. This was a masterly and deeply poetic performance.

After the interval we heard just one work, VW’s Dona nobis pacem. This piece is not heard anything like as often as it should be: though I’ve sung in a couple of performances those were over 20 years ago and I can’t recall ever attending a live performance as a member of the audience. Perhaps this unjustified neglect is partly a question of the work’s dimensions. It’s duration is a little awkward in terms of building a programme – the recordings I have play for between 33 and 38 minutes; I timed Mr Bowen’s performance at roughly 32 minutes. Furthermore it requires large forces: two soloists, SATB choir and a very full orchestra. It was a very adroit, pragmatic decision to programme it tonight in an otherwise orchestral programme because although it’s a big sing for the choir it doesn’t last too long so placing it midway through a very busy week for the Festival Chorus was shrewd.

Vaughan Williams wrote Dona nobis pacem in 1936; it was commissioned by the Huddersfield Choral Society to mark their centenary. VW devised his own libretto and constructed one of those anthology librettos at which he excelled. The texts include passages from several Old Testament prophecies, the Psalms and from his beloved Walt Whitman. There’s also the inspired inclusion of an extract from the celebrated speech made in the House of Commons on 23 February 1855 by the radical MP, John Bright (1811-1889), in opposition to the Crimean War (‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land’). The piece opens and closes with words from the Latin Mass: ‘Agnus Dei’. It seems to me to be a masterstroke that, having spent much of the work illustrating conflict Vaughan Williams suddenly turns the focus of  Dona nobis pacem through 180 degrees with the baritone solo ‘O man greatly beloved’ With this he introduces what is at first a note of cautious hope, blossoming eventually into a typically open-hearted optimism for the future. It’s a deeply eloquent and very moving score

It used to be thought by some commentators, mistakenly but understandably, that Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony was a depiction of the gathering political storms in Europe in the 1930s. In fact Dona Nobis Pacem is, surely, a much more direct artistic response to those menacing times and I think that eighty years later it has equally strong resonances in these very troubled times in which we presently live. It was sobering that the performance was given on the very day that a French Catholic priest was brutally murdered by Islamist terrorists. As it happens, Dona Nobis Pacem is one of only a handful of VW’s works for which a recording conducted by the composer exists and from it we can hear for ourselves just how important this work was for its composer. In November 1936, just a month after the premiere by the Huddersfield Choral Society, Vaughan Williams himself conducted a broadcast performance for the BBC and that recording is available on CD. The performance is very fine indeed; it’s essential listening (review).

Tonight’s performance was a very good one. Both soloists did well, singing clearly and with feeling. I especially admired the natural eloquence with which Alex Ashworth  delivered his solos – VW gives him some memorable and affecting lines to sing.  I thought, though, that the lovely ‘Reconciliation’ – the heart of the work – was paced just a fraction too fast and so, despite Ashworth’s fine singing, the tenderness of the music didn’t register quite as well as it might.

But the real stars of the show were the Festival Chorus. The choir parts are demanding and exciting – the quiet passages no less so than the many loud ones. I thought the choir sang with huge commitment and no little incisiveness. They were terrifically dynamic in ‘Beat! beat! drums!’ This is such a frenzied, exciting movement with thrilling – and often loud – orchestration that it’s all too easy just to sing it at full tilt but following in the score I noted that the choir had been well schooled in matters of attention to detail.  In ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ I think it’s arguable that the choir didn’t truly observe the piano and pianissimo injunctions in the opening and closing pages. However, in music such as this – and in this acoustic – I’d rather hear a mezzo-piano sound that is convincing than a piano that comes across as tentative. There was nothing tentative about the choir’s singing, here or elsewhere, yet the beauty of VW’s quieter, expressive passages came across very well. In this movement the huge climax at “I hear the great drums pounding” was powerfully achieved as was the potent passage for orchestra alone a few pages later. Here the Philharmonia’s contribution – thrilling brass and percussion – really thrust home the music home powerfully.

Arguably the orchestra were allowed to peak a bit too soon in the concluding ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation’ section but the uplifting optimism of VW’s vision that peace will be achieved one day came across very strongly. Geraint Bowen conducted the piece well though once or twice I wished he’d allowed himself a little more expansiveness. I’m pretty sure his speed for ‘Reconciliation’ was faster than the metronome marking and, as I’ve said, I missed the tenderness in that movement. I also wished the Poco Piú lento marking in the last couple of pages had been more strongly observed; the ending seemed to lack inwardness. However, elsewhere Mr Bowen certainly got hold of the score, inspiring a strongly committed, eloquent performance.

I hope that the very enthusiastic audience response to this performance may encourage either Adrian Partington or one of his two colleagues to programme the visionary and similarly under-performed Sancta Civitas in a future Three Choirs Festival.

John Quinn






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