A 70th Anniversary Celebration and a Commemoration in Gloucester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Saint Cecilia Singers 70th Anniversary ConcertSaint Cecilia Singers / Jonathan Hope (conductor), Christopher Allsop (organ). Gloucester Cathedral 2.3.2019. (JQ)

Tye – O come ye servants of the Lord
EccardWhen to the temple Mary came
Redford Rejoice in the Lord always
HowellsHere is the little door
ParryMy soul, there is a country
Sterndale BennettGod is a spirit
Stanford Beati quorum via
WhitlockJesu, grant me this I pray
Bairstow Let all mortal flesh keep silence
C. WoodGlory and honour, and laud
HowellsHymn to St Cecilia
Duruflé – Requiem

The Saint Cecilia Singers is a chamber choir affiliated to Gloucester Cathedral; its membership comprises some of the best singers in Gloucestershire. The choir was founded in 1949 by Donald Hunt (1930-2018) when he was Assistant Organist of Gloucester Cathedral. Dr Hunt went on to pursue a notable career, especially as Organist of Leeds Parish Church (1958-75) and of Worcester Cathedral (1976-1996). In the latter capacity – and subsequently as Principal of the Elgar School of Music in Worcester – he played a key role for many years in the Three Choirs Festival and it was poignant that he died in August last year while the 2018 Festival was in progress.

With the exception of a couple of brief periods, mainly during interregna, the Assistant Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral has always inherited Donald Hunt’s mantle as Conductor of the Saint Cecilia Singers and both posts are currently held by Jonathan Hope. All the pieces in the first half of tonight’s concert were sung at either the inaugural concert of the choir on 17 February 1949 or at the second concert the following year. When this concert was first announced it was intended that the programme should be completed by the premiere of a new work commissioned for the choir’s seventieth anniversary from Neil Cox. However, the premiere of that work, Requiem Canticles, has been postponed and in its place the choir sang the Duruflé Requiem in memory of their founder. In a nice touch, the guest organist for the Duruflé was Christopher Allsop, who, from 2004 until recently served as Assistant Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral.

All the pieces in the first half, with the exception of the Howells Hymn to St Cecilia, were a cappella works. The programme contained a photograph of the choir taken on the occasion of the inaugural concert in 1949. Then there were just 15 singers in the ranks: tonight, the choir numbered 26 (8/8/4/6).

The first three items in the programme were nicely sung but I thought that the concert really came to life first with a fine account of Howells’ Here is the little door and even more so with Parry’s My soul, there is a country. The latter received a performance of great commitment and fervour, Jonathan Hope ensuring that his singers made the most of the dynamic contrasts which are so crucial to Parry’s piece. I wasn’t surprised that this piece went so well, though, because I recall this choir gave an excellent performance of all six of the Songs of Farewell just last year (review). Sterndale Bennett’s God is a spirit was well sung but the music seemed no more than dutiful to me, especially after the Parry. We were back onto a more exalted level, though, with Stanford’s exquisite Beati quorum via. This is one of the jewels of the English liturgical repertoire and tonight’s performance had admirable finesse. Percy Whitlock (1903-46) is perhaps best remembered today for his organ music and I must admit that his anthem Jesu, grant me this I pray is not a piece with which I’m familiar but I enjoyed tonight’s account of it.  I had the impression, perhaps wrongly, that the singing was fractionally tentative at the start of Bairstow’s Let all mortal flesh keep silence but if the opening lacked complete conviction then the performance built impressively as it unfolded. Charles Wood’s Glory and honour, and laud brought the a cappella part of the programme to a close.

To finish the first half the choir sang Howells’ Hymn to St Cecilia. This piece, an appropriate choice given the occasion, was commissioned to mark Howells’ term as Master of the Worshipful Company of Musicians (1959-60) and it’s a setting of a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams. I don’t believe it’s one of Howells’ best-known pieces – I’ve only encountered it once or twice on CD. The tune is a fine one but it’s far from straightforward and though the audience was invited to join in the first and last of the hymn’s three verses I think perhaps this was a bit ambitious: I doubt many would have been able to pick up the tune through its twists and turns. It might have been better to let us simply enjoy hearing the choir sing the words and music addressed to the saint from which they take their name.

There was much to admire in the performance of the Duruflé Requiem. This is a serene and beautiful composition, not so much based on Gregorian chant as suffused with those timeless melodies from start to finish. The choir sang the music with great commitment and skill but there were a couple of problems with the performance. Christopher Allsop is a very fine organist indeed and I’m sure he was following the composer’s dynamics throughout. However, quite often, especially in the opening movements, the hefty sound of the Gloucester Cathedral organ tended to overwhelm the choir when they were singing softly. This was apparent to me even though my seat was close to the front. The choir was not at fault here – I know they were observing the dynamics scrupulously; the issue was that the organ should have been scaled back somewhat to take account of the relatively small number of singers involved. Elsewhere, though, Mr Allsop was most sympathetic and imaginative in his playing: he conjured some exquisite pastel colours from the instrument in the ‘Lux aeterna’, where he also imparted a seamless flow to the music, and in the concluding ‘In Paradisum’ the organ was ideally balanced with the singers, contributing to a highly atmospheric end to the work. It was noticeable that when the choir was singing flat out – in parts of the Offertoire or in the ‘Dies irae’ section of the ‘Libera me’ – they had no trouble in projecting the choral sound against the full might of the organ.

The Requiem calls for two soloists and tonight both were drawn from the choir. They were not named in the programme – they should have been – so I don’t know who sang the eloquent ‘Pie Jesu’. The score specifies a mezzo-soprano but tonight’s soloist was a member of the soprano section. She sang from the organ screen, high above the nave. The solo was beautifully delivered; the singer was able to encompass the entire range of the part with seeming ease and her voice carried down the cathedral in an ideal fashion.  Duruflé actually states in a note in the score that it is ‘preferable’ that the two baritone solos should be sung by all the baritones and second tenors, though it’s far from unusual for a single voice to be used. This performance offered a halfway house. In the Offertoire a solo baritone was used. This was Bill Armiger, a former lay clerk in the cathedral choir. He made a very fine job of the solo, seemingly untroubled by the demanding tessitura. The second solo, which occurs in the ‘Libera me’ is shorter and tonight all the basses sang it. This didn’t quite work. The basses had been divided into two groups of three, one group at either side of the choir, and this positioning probably explains why the singing wasn’t completely unanimous. I think it would have been preferable to leave these phrases to Bill Armiger.

As I commented earlier, the choir’s attention to dynamics was exemplary throughout the performance and their control of line was equally impressive. Jonathan Hope clearly had the score at his fingertips and he drew a very convincing performance from his performers, allowing the music to flow in an ideal fashion. The Requiem is mainly contemplative in nature and so there aren’t many dramatic passages in it but those that do occur were thrust home with great impact. Overall, this was a worthy tribute to the choir’s founder.

Indeed, had he been present I’m sure Donald Hunt would have been thrilled by the technical proficiency and by the level of engagement with the music which the Saint Cecilia Singers of today achieved during this concert. The choir makes a fine sound and blends well. The only reservation, I think, is that the tenor section sounded underpowered this evening. The tenors made a nice sound but there weren’t enough of them, especially given that the choir includes many strong voices. However, the choir founded seventy years ago is in fine fettle today and this concert was typical of the high standards I’ve experienced at concerts by the group over the years.

Tonight’s programme looked back, and rightly so. However, the Saint Cecilia Singers are notable champions of music by living composers; their premiere of Philip Lancaster’s War Passion not long ago was such an example (review). I look forward with keen anticipation, therefore, to their unveiling of Neil Cox’s Requiem Canticles early on in their eighth decade of music-making.

John Quinn 

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