Three Spires Singers in Haydn and Dvořák

20/11/2017

Haydn, Schumann, Dvořák: Three Spires Singers and Orchestra, Anna Patalong (soprano), Angharad Lyddon (mezzo-soprano), David Webb (tenor), Benedict Nelson (bass), Paul Comeau (piano) / Christopher Gray (conductor). Truro Cathedral, 18.11.2017. (PRB)

Three Spires Singers and Orchestra (c) Philip R Buttall

Three Spires Singers and Orchestra (c) Philip R Buttall

Haydn – Insanae et Vanae Curae
Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54
Dvořák – Stabat Mater

It is always a real delight to attend concerts by Three Spires Singers in Truro Cathedral. Not only is the venue a most impressive edifice, situated just under forty miles from Land’s End, but Christopher Gray, conductor and the Cathedral’s Director of Music, always manages to come up with an attractive programme. It may, as with the previous concert, simply involve a large-scale work from the choral repertoire. It may also be an equally effective mix of slightly shorter vocal works, with instrumental pieces, and often where a soloist is involved—the pattern, in fact, for the present offering.

Previously the Venerable Roger Bush, Dean of Truro, has welcomed the audience with a few friendly words and short prayer, but on this occasion, while still present in the audience, he had handed over the responsibility to his Assistant Curate. Revd Jane Horton was able to elucidate matters when she introduced the first item on the programme, Haydn’s Insanae et Vanae Curae. While “Frantic and futile anxieties” is the literal translation, in accordance with many choirboys’ pranks, it has more often been rendered as “Insane and Vain Curates”. But, by giving his curate the opportunity publicly to gainsay this, the Dean, perhaps inadvertently, was acknowledging the fact that she might indeed be better qualified to introduce a musical event, given her initial training and career as a professional musician, before later being ordained into the Ministry. Whatever the reason, it once more served to emphasise the friendly and welcoming nature of such events here.

Haydn had written an oratorio, Il ritorno di Tobia, that was never successful. In a subsequent bid to revive the work, he specially composed two new choruses for it, but still to no avail. Eventually Haydn decided to turn one of these into a stand-alone motet by substituting a Latin text, Insanae et Vanae Curae, for the original Italian libretto. As such, it is very similar in concept to the Kyrie of his far-better-known Nelson Mass, even sharing the same D minor key. Here Three Spires Singers and orchestra were in fine form from the outset, making great play of the contrasting styles in this single-movement work. From the frenzied and powerful opening to the contrasting calm and lyrical section, this was an incisive performance idiomatically crafted by Gray, and it certainly took no prisoners. Though it did require the assistance of arguably the choir’s most ardent supporter—its President, and BBC Radio 3-presenter Petroc Trelawny—to instigate the ensuing enthusiastic applause, such was this short work’s seemingly elusive, and almost indecisive ending. Either that, or the rest of the audience, just like Oliver Twist, was simply asking for more.

In the event, Schumann’s Piano Concerto proved an ideal work to follow, and it allowed the choir time to re-charge their batteries for the second half. Local musician Paul Comeau combines a busy career as professional accompanist, teacher, soloist, and chamber-musician, as well as Three Spires Singers’ rehearsal répétiteur, and, on this occasion, even chamber-organist in the Stabat Mater. Of course, simultaneously wearing all these hats in a thriving musical fraternity can mean that finding extra time to study a concerto like the Schumann is a significant ask. True, the work might not be quite in the same league as Rachmaninov Third Concerto, but it is still deceptively difficult, and especially from the rhythmic standpoint in the finale. Interplay between soloist and orchestra, too, particularly solo wind instruments, can be an issue, especially where a bright-sounding piano—like the mid-sized Yamaha C7 Grand—is used, as here, and in a lively and reverberant acoustic. There were glitches along the way, exacerbated occasionally by a tendency to rush, which, for example, did not always seem to give the clarinets sufficient notice on some entries. But equally there was some lovely string-playing, especially from the cellos in the slow movement, and the contribution from the horns, all of which more than compensated. Gray, and the orchestra, led with great flair and assurance by Pauline Lowbury, ensured that the spirit of the performance was kept intact throughout. This resulted in a performance that ticked almost all of the boxes, and was certainly enthusiastically received by the large audience.

There is an interesting parallel between Dvořák, whose Stabat Mater provided the second half of the programme, and Brahms, who persuaded his publisher to market and print the Czech composer’s music, thereby effectively giving him a real career boost. At the same time, however, Dvořák’s new daughter died just two days after her birth and, in an obvious state of grief and despondency, he threw himself into writing his Stabat Mater. Somewhat similarly, Brahms had lost his mother some ten years earlier, and this probably provided a similar inspiration for his own Ein deutsches Requiem.

By virtue of its subject matter, a good deal of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is slow, and in minor keys. Most of the contrast is derived from the soloists’ contribution. The choir and orchestra still play a vital part in the proceedings, and need to have the necessary physical and emotional reserve and stamina to rise to the somewhat unexpected and invigorating final Amen which finishes the work on a real high.

In achieving such a tremendous and uplifting performance, the choir had brought together four extremely talented young soloists who proved absolutely ideal for the task. Soprano Anna Patalong sang with immense power when required, soared effortlessly to the high notes, and yet was equally able to manage effective production at the other end of the dynamic range. Like her other fellow-soloists, she was equally as effective on her own and in concerted numbers, where the effective blend between all four voices was so very evident. Mezzo-soprano Angharad Lyddon brought a real richness to the female mix, even at the bottom of the range, where projection was never once compromised. Bass Benedict Nelson added a stunning bottom line, while delivering his solo with great panache, thereby confirming an artist as much at home on the oratorio platform as the opera stage. But the true icing on the cake came from tenor David Webb, who so skilfully combined Italianate passion with pure beauty of tone, again ascending fluently to his high notes, and singing with simple, yet clearly heartfelt expression. Talking briefly after the event, the tenor, who started out as a Choral Scholar at Truro, and Head Chorister at Exeter Cathedral, alluded to this very point. When the studied and learned the role initially, he felt the fundamental need to look way beyond the score, and approach things very much from the composer’s life-perspective at the time, something which was then so readily apparent in the final performance.

Of course, none of this would still have been possible without the tremendous input from the Three Spires Singers. They produce such a well-balanced sound across all four parts, and are as capable of earth-shattering fortissimos as they are the most delicate pianissimos. They hold their own against the orchestra, where the balance is always well-maintained, but are also so effective when unaccompanied. Of course, they need more men, which is a perennial problem for most choirs, but those they do have, together with a couple of lady counterparts, still give their all. This again was very noticeable in the one male-voice chorus with tenor soloist. But the quality of the soprano section is surely still one of the choir’s greatest assets. High notes are never swooped, no single voice stands out, and the overall attack ensures that all entries are well-timed and precise. Likewise, they have clearly been taught to listen implicitly to the prevailing harmony, so that pitch shows no signs of sagging at any point, even when unaccompanied.

Apart from the resources themselves, this is still down to the expertise of the conductor, both during rehearsals, and on the night. The final accolade must go to the expertise of conductor Christopher Gray, both during the rehearsal stage and on the night, in bringing everything together as one, from the superb choral singing and orchestral playing to the telling soloists’ contributions.

In my book, then, one of Three Spires Singers’ finest shorter-work performances, and again one where, despite all the rigorous and well-disciplined preparation beforehand, it was still imbued with such a palpable sense of spontaneous enjoyment on the night.

Philip R Buttall

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