The Dartington ensembles perform sombre music by Laura Rossi and Brahms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossi, Brahms: Vanessa Redgrave (narrator), Catherine Hamilton (soprano), Darren Jeffery (bass-baritone), Dartington Community Choir and Dartington Sinfonietta / Simon Capet (conductor), Great Hall, Dartington. 7.5.2017. (PRB)

Dartington Community Choir with Vanessa Redgrave (inset); photo credit - Philip R Buttall.
Dartington Community Choir with Vanessa Redgrave (inset) (c) Philip R Buttall

Laura Rossi Voices of Remembrance
Brahms – Ein deutsches Requiem

Although on paper it might seem a somewhat sombre choice of repertoire for a lovely mid-spring evening—Brahms’s Requiem, written shortly after his mother’s death, and Laura Rossi’s Voices of Remembrance, inspired by the fatalities during WW1—the weather and glorious surroundings in fact added to a sense of positivity and optimism which the performance ultimately emanated, rather than dwelling on each subject’s darker side

The two works not only proved ideal bedfellows on the day, but also renewed a long-standing link: the prolific film and television composer Rossi came originally from Devon, and lived in Teignmouth, just half an hour away from Dartington. This also gave the capacity audience the unmissable opportunity to hear one of Britain’s most celebrated actresses, Vanessa Redgrave, reading poetry from the early years of the twentieth century.

Voices of Remembrance, premiered in 2015, brings together arguably ten of the greatest WWI poems, interspersed with Rossi’s original and inventive score. In exactly the same way as Brahms did in his Requiem, she set out to create something humane and widely accessible out of deep bereavement. Her score and the poets’ voices are not necessarily religious, though the overall mood is spiritual. Rossi’s great uncle Fred had been a stretcher-bearer on the battlefields of the Somme in 1916, and he was the only one among his friends to survive. According to the composer, it was this personal connection that helped and shaped her music in the work.

Rather in the manner of Debussy’s twenty-four Préludes for piano—where the descriptive title of each one appears at the end, not as a heading at the start—Rossi’s work opens with a poem, narrated by Redgrave, which is then followed by a retrospective musical reflection on this, normally for choir and orchestra. While this is the pattern overall, one or two poems are musically echoed by orchestra alone, and on two further occasions there are musical settings only, with no preceding narration.

It is a work that very much depends on the sum of its parts to succeed in performance. A consistent over-arching style of writing, unsurprisingly, pervades the whole work, in accordance with the tenor of the poetry. For the choir at times this involves some wordless singing, where harmonies are close, and not always easy to pitch accurately, given the orchestra’s position in front of the choir. Occasionally it did seem as if the choir was a little out of its usual comfort zone, where concentration was focused more on reading the score than communicating with the audience, something which the Dartington Choir usually excels at. But equally this had been a long day, and, because the main performance was sold out almost as soon as tickets became available, an extra performance had been scheduled just a couple of hours or so before the main one, which then included the Requiem as well. That is demanding for any choir, let alone a community choir that does not even audition its members. It is also a consequence of not having the luxury of unlimited rehearsal time, especially with the orchestra, something which can always bring some negativity and minor anxieties on the night. As ever, the choir-members still gave of their best, while clearly relishing the more extended melodious parts of the work, where there was decidedly more to get their teeth into. It is also beneficial to explore new works and venture into new, less familiar territories. That, apart from broadening the musical experience, also regenerates interest in the more routine repertoire. And, at the end of the day, there still was Redgrave’s uncluttered yet totally enthralling delivery of each poem, itself well worth the price of a ticket alone.

Brahms’s German Requiem, of course, is one of those “routine” works which most choirs have performed a number of times over the years. Dartington Community Choir sang it some five years ago, and on that occasion used the composer’s piano-duet version by way of support. While this proved more than sufficient at the time, there is no doubt that using the full orchestral accompaniment adds greatly to the impact of the performance. Of course this also adds considerably to the overall costs. Given the relatively modest provision of audience seating in the otherwise magnificent Great Hall, were a full orchestra, choir and soloists to be involved, it would be a no-win situation from the financial standpoint.

However, there is now a significant a number of scores for large-scale works available, where the orchestration has been skilfully trimmed, to keep as much of the original in place, yet without reflecting the fact that this is a cut-down version. On this occasion, it was decided to utilise German flautist Joachim Linckelmann’s 2010 version for chamber orchestra, given that it made good use of the instrumental resources already dictated by Rossi’s work in the first half.

Using this type of reduced orchestration helps solve probably the main complaint at choral concerts, namely that the choir has been rehearsing hard for months, and then, along comes the orchestra and, if left unchecked, simply drowns out most of the good work done beforehand. Conversely, with fewer musicians used, each player has to be hugely adept, since the orchestration is of chamber-music dimensions, where every single note—right or wrong—tells. In the recently formed Dartington Sinfonietta, though, and under the highly-assured leadership of violinist Mary Eade, the choir could scarcely have asked for better orchestral support.

It was good to hear that the work was sung in the original German. It was clear that the singers had gone to great length not only in terms of correct pronunciation, but more so in clearly understanding the words they were singing, and conveying this to the listener, who then had little real need of the supplied translation. While the musical ensemble was not totally unflawed throughout, there were still many moments of great emotion, power and passion, and perhaps none more than in the impressively-delivered second chorus, Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (All flesh is like grass). All of that contrasted so well with the simple, heartfelt sincerity of the fourth, and probably best-known chorus, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy Dwellings).

If the choir was at its best in the Brahms, then the added excellence here of both soloists made this arguably the programme’s highlight overall. The rich and rounded tone of bass-baritone Darren Jeffery was ideal for the role. He was comfortable at both ends of the register, especially the top, and his articulation and diction in the vernacular was especially impressive.

Sadly, soprano Catherine Hamilton had just the one solo to deliver, for her voice was always such a pleasure to listen to, as she so effortlessly soared to her high notes, maintaining tonal beauty throughout, and with such easy delivery that spoke so readily to her audience.

While as always this is a team effort, it would not have happened without the vital input of conductor Simon Capet. We have now become so accustomed to his sensitive direction and innate musicality, and the way in which he inspires and communicates with every single one of his performers, and the audience. But he is also bringing a new sense of direction and purpose to the choir, by introducing and presenting new material like the Rossi, which initially has to be sold to the membership, who may rightly have some reservations at the start. But it is, and should always be a learning process for all concerned, rather than merely trotting out tried-and-tested old chestnuts on every occasion, which can then so easily lead to musical stagnation.

And for Capet to do all this virtually twice yesterday, when on crutches following a painful heel bone fracture, certainly warrants an extra dollop of praise—and sheer admiration to boot.

Philip R Buttall

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