Committed Revivals of Two Neglected English Choral Works at the Three Choirs Festival

29/07/2018

TCF Hereford Choir Heads 2 col logo RGB 2016 (2)

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival [1] – Ireland, Smyth: Eleanor Dennis (soprano); Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano); Paul Nilon (tenor); Neal Davies (bass) Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra / Geraint Bowen (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 28.7.2018. (JQ)

Geraint Bowen (c) Ash Mills

Geraint Bowen (c) Ash Mills

John IrelandThese things shall be
Dame Ethel Smyth – Mass in D (1891, rev. 1925)

The first major evening concert of the 2018 Three Choirs Festival gave us the opportunity to hear two substantial choral/orchestral works by British composers. One used to be quite a favourite with choral societies, though it is less commonly heard nowadays, while the second has been almost entirely neglected for many decades and known only by reputation.

John Ireland’s These things shall be was written in no little haste in the early months of 1937 to meet a BBC commission for music to mark the Coronation of King George VI. Ireland selected for his text a poem entitled A Vista by John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). He trimmed about half the length of Symonds’ poem to produce a text which expressed lofty and optimistic aspirations for a future world. The choice was appropriate given that many Britons may have wished for a fresh start on the accession of a new monarch in the wake of the Abdication Crisis, but it’s a sad irony that within a couple of years these hopes were dashed by the outbreak of another world war.

Ireland scored his piece for SATB chorus and orchestra with a short, pivotal role for a male soloist. Often the solo role is sung by a baritone but the score allows a tenor as an alternative and tonight Paul Nilon did the honours. The work is effectively divided into two parts. The opening stanzas of Symonds’ verse are set to music that is, for the most part, strong and powerful. Both the Festival Chorus and the Philharmonia delivered this music with the punch and commitment that Geraint Bowen clearly desired. The performance had undeniable impact but I think the braqss section rather dominated the proceedings at times.

The soloist’s role, though short, is pivotal. Commencing at the words ‘Nation with nation, land with land, /Inarmed shall live as comrades free’, the singer presents a noble, lyrical melody on which the rest of the piece is founded. Much of what follows is stirring and genuinely aspirational in tone. Geraint Bowen brought the right amount of breadth to the music and drew a fervent response from his choir. As the music unfolds one might be forgiven for assuming that Ireland is leading up to a Big Finish but he is subtler than that and springs something of a surprise by bringing the piece to a tranquil, somewhat reflective close.

These things shall be is not heard too often these days. The piece, though it is a good one, is not quite among the first rank of British choral works and the text is rather dated. Still, it’s good to hear it and tonight’s committed performance made the best possible case for it.

One of the themes of the 2018 Three Choirs Festival is ‘Celebrating Women’. Since a key element in that theme is the centenary of the extension of the right to vote to many – though not all – British women, it’s appropriate that one of the featured major works should be the Mass in D by Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), a doughty campaigner for female suffrage.

The programme note by Peter Avis – a very slightly adapted version of the note written for the work’s only recording to date – filled in the colourful background to the composer and the work in question very well. We learned, for instance, that Ethel Smyth joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1911, resolving to devote herself to the cause of female suffrage for two years. Smyth, who became a friend of Emmeline Pankhurst, even spent a few weeks in Holloway prison for an offence committed in support of the Cause.

Her Mass in D pre-dates her time as a suffragette. The work was completed by 1891, though she revised it in 1925. Dame Ethel herself conducted two movements from the Mass at the 1925 Three Choirs Festival and in 1928 she returned to conduct the entire work but it’s not been heard at Three Choirs since then. I know it only through what is, I’m pretty certain, the work’s only recording, made in the early 1990s by the American forces of The Plymouth Festival Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Philip Brunelle. I haven’t listened to that recording for quite some time but prior to attending this concert I revisited it in order to refresh my memory.

I may as well come clean and declare at the outset my problem with this work. There are lengthy sections of the Kyrie, Credo and Gloria which are unremittingly loud. These long stretches – at least they seem long to me – are, frankly, wearing for the listener. They also create a structural problem in that because the loud passages are so extended  the score contains scarcely any genuine climaxes. One of the few exceptions to this rule comes in the Sanctus where the loud outburst at ’Hosanna’ makes its effect precisely because the movement up to that point has been fairly subdued in tone. Tonight’s performance was too frequently high in decibels and we were aware of Smyth’s fondness for brass and percussion. I haven’t seen a score of the work but in making this point I am pretty sure that the high volume was not the ‘fault’ of Geraint Bowen or his forces – though the tone of the trombones was a bit harsh at times I felt. The Brunelle recording is exactly the same in this respect so the fault must lie with the composer who, I fear, seriously over-scored several sections of the work, producing dense and ratter unvarying textures.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three best movements are the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei for in each of these sections the scoring is much more restrained and more imaginative. Furthermore, I may be wrong, but whereas it seemed to me that the other movements made clear the influence of German music on the composer that influence didn’t seem as pronounced to me in these three shorter movement. A German influence is not surprising since Ethel Smyth trained in Leipzig. The Sanctus was, for me, the outstanding movement tonight, both as music and performance. It features a prominent part for the mezzo soloist and Madeleine Shaw, the pick of the solo quartet, sang her music very well, with lovely, warm tone and unaffected expression. I was fascinated by the orchestral scoring when she began to sing: so far as I could tell the orchestration was limited to horns, bassoons and tuba, producing a most original, deep-toned effect.  The Benedictus has a prominent role for the soprano soloist. There was much to admire in the contribution of Eleanor Dennis, though her diction seemed rather clouded to me – and more so when she sang in the Credo. That surprised me because I hadn’t been conscious of any diction issues when I enjoyed her singing in Parry’s Ode on the Nativity earlier this year. The Agnus Dei features a substantial tenor solo. The solo writing is impassioned and the tessitura demanding at times. I’ve heard Paul Nilon sing on several occasions in the past and I’ve felt his singing sounds effortful. That, I’m afraid, was also the case tonight, not just in this movement but elsewhere. The fourth soloist, the bass, has less to do than his colleagues. Neal Davies came into his own in the Gloria where the bass and mezzo soloists have a prominent duet. Davies sang very well here, as did Madeleine Shaw.

The chorus is kept pretty busy throughout the Mass, which tonight played for about 62 minutes. I admired the commitment of the Festival Chorus and, indeed, their stamina since, as I’ve already indicated, they have several extended passages in which they’re required to sing full-on without much respite. The Kyrie offers one such example. It begins in a fairly subdued vein with a choral fugue, intoned by the basses and gradually involving the other three voices in turn. Smyth gradually builds both intensity and volume over the first two or three minutes and this passage is really quite impressive. However, there follow several minutes of loud music and I found myself longing for some light and shade. It’s not until the last couple of minutes that the music becomes more tranquil and the fugal theme is reprised homophonically. This closing passage is effective and I found myself thinking how much better the movement might have been overall had the composer introduced more variety mid-movement, possibly by involving the soloists.

The Credo starts in a very vigorous, confident vein and the Festival Chorus really got hold of the music in this episode, projecting it with conviction. A pleasing passage of lyrical music is introduced by the tenor soloist at ‘Qui propter nos homines’. Smyth has the Resurrection proclaimed by the chorus with a great outburst of energy and a good deal of the rest of the movement is strong and forthright. I liked the short noble passage for the tenors and basses at ‘Et expecto’. There was, then, a good deal to admire in the movement – and in the way it was performed – but I couldn’t escape the feeling that too much of the music was over-scored.Most unusually in a concert setting of the Mass the work ends not with the Agnus Dei but with the Gloria; apparently Dame Ethel wanted her setting to have a triumphant conclusion. The movement starts exuberantly and assertively, though the soloists have more lyrical music at ‘Et in terra pax’, which is then developed by the choir. The extended passage for the mezzo and bass soloists, to which I referred earlier, is broad and expressive. Thereafter, the composer uses her forces to drive a big, blazing D major finish.

Is the Mass in D an unjustly neglected masterpiece? Not in my view. It contains some interesting music, almost invariably when the dynamic level is more restrained, but too often the composer resorts to prolonged and unyielding loud music – at one point an elderly lady near me in the audience was observed to have her fingers in her ears! I didn’t feel the need to resort to such measures but I did find the music wearing at times. None of which, though, is a criticism of the performers who, I am sure, were simply following the composer’s intentions. Geraint Bowen, his singers and players made the best possible case for the piece in this committed and vibrant performance and, indeed, drew me into the music rather more than my previous experience of the commercial recording had done.

John Quinn 

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