Tewkesbury experiences a memorable concert as part of The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Choral Pilgrimage 2022 – An Old Belief: The Sixteen / Eamonn Dougan (conductor). Tewkesbury Abbey, 10.9.2022 (JQ)

The Sixteen recently at the BBC Proms 2022 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Byrd – Justorum animae
ParrySongs of Farewell: ‘My soul, there is a country’; I know my soul hath power’; Never weather-beaten sail’
Medieval Carol – ‘Saint Thomas honour we’
ParrySongs of Farewell: ‘There is an old belief’
Thomas CampionNever, weather-beaten sail
HowellsTake him, earth for cherishing
Cecilia McDowallAn Unexpected Shore
Medieval Carol – ‘O blessed Lord’
ParrySongs of Farewell: ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’
CampionAuthor of light; Tune thy music to thy heart
ParrySongs of Farewell: ‘Lord, let me know mine end’

For several years now The Sixteen have included Tewkesbury Abbey in their annual Choral Pilgrimage series of musical peregrinations around some of the UK’s finest churches and cathedrals. Small wonder, for Tewkesbury boasts an abbey church the architectural splendour of which can easily stand comparison with our finest cathedrals. Furthermore, the abbey is blessed with a wonderful acoustic. I have attended these Tewkesbury concerts for several years, but not since 2019: the Covid restrictions put paid to the 2020 Pilgrimage and although The Sixteen visited Tewkesbury Abbey in 2021 for a ‘socially distanced’ performance, I was unable to attend. So, I was delighted to have another chance to hear them, and it was very pleasing to see a large audience assembled.

Professional concert programmes are planned well in advance; indeed, the recording sessions for the CD of this programme (CORO COR16189) took place as long ago as November 2021. It was uncanny, therefore, how well this programme fitted the national mood of reflection and mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, though a couple of minor adjustments were made to the programme. Originally, it had been intended that four medieval carols would be performed at various points in the concert, including one at the very start. Two of these were excised from the programme. More significantly, William Byrd’s Justorum animae was added to open the proceedings; this spacious, intense and dignified piece was ideally suited to the occasion. This was followed by a prayer and a minute’s silence, after which the rest of the programme unfolded under the direction of The Sixteen’s associate conductor, Eamonn Dougan.

It was a very well-planned sequence, but I hope I will be forgiven if I don’t consider the music in the order in which it was sung. I am not often drawn to medieval music; purely as a matter of personal taste I find the textures too sparse and the melodic lines often too florid. I felt that with the first of tonight’s two offerings, ‘Saint Thomas honour we’, a piece in honour of St Thomas Becket. However, ‘O blessed Lord’, which we heard in the second half of the programme, was something to which I responded much more warmly. This is a verse-and-refrain setting. The refrains, sung by the choir, had a pleasing fullness of texture while the verses, sung in duet by two excellent soloists, were indeed florid but also very eloquent.

It was interesting to hear three musical settings of his own words by the musician and poet, Thomas Campion (1567-1620), especially since one of the poems was also set by Parry in the Songs of Farewell. All three pieces were accomplished settings; I especially enjoyed Author of light. Whilst Campion’s own music for Never, weather-beaten sail is well worth hearing, Parry’s masterly – and inevitably more complex – setting casts a long shadow.

I am a great admirer of the choral music of Cecilia McDowall (b.1951) and it was good to hear a live performance of ‘An Unexpected Shore’. This is actually the first movement of a three-movement work, Good News from New England. The text is taken from the Journal of William Bradford, one of the Puritans who emigrated to the New World in the 1620s; in 1621 he was chosen to be Governor of New Plymouth. These are unusual words to set in a choral work but as Harry Christophers put it in his preface to the programme book, ‘the mood set is one of hope, unity and national joy’. As I have always found to be the case with this composer’s vocal music, the piece was very well written for voices and it seemed to me that the music illustrated and complemented the words very well.

We heard the McDowall right at the start of the second half of the concert. The first half had closed with Howells’ Take him, earth for cherishing. This wonderfully eloquent piece was commissioned for a concert in Washington DC to mark the first anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. It was an apt choice for a programme which had at its heart the music of Parry, since Howells was a Parry pupil at the Royal College of Music. However, hearing these words sung tonight to Howells’ exquisitely eloquent music so soon after the death of the Queen was especially poignant. The piece is suffused by grief, of course, but the expression of grief is patrician. Furthermore, there is strength and determination in Howells’ musical response to the words. I thought Dougan and his singers were very successful in bringing out the music’s strength and urgency as well as its aching melancholy. This was a marvellous performance.

There is also a great deal of melancholy in Parry’s Songs of Farewell but, as its performance demonstrated, there is much more to these masterly settings. I may as well show my hand and declare that I consider these songs to be among the finest – indeed, arguably the finest – examples of English part songs. The music is magnificent, not least in the skill of the part-writing, and Parry’s response to the various texts he chose to set penetrates to the heart of the words. To the best of my recollection, I have not previously heard them sung except as a sequence of six pieces – and, interestingly, that’s how they’re presented on the aforementioned CD of this programme. Whilst it remains my preference to hear them in sequence it was illuminating to hear them tonight at various junctures in the programme.

In ‘My soul, there is a country’ the singers ensured that all the contrasts of dynamics and pace that Parry wrote into the music were observed; thus, the piece made its proper effect. I very much appreciated Dougan’s way with ‘Never weather-beaten sail’. He took the music at a flowing speed and imparted anticipatory urgency into the music at ‘Oh come quickly, glorious Lord’. This fresh and fluent performance had not a trace of stuffiness about it. I think that the songs become deeper in expression as the series unfolds. ‘There is an old belief’ contains wonderful harmonies and expertly imagined part-writing. In the closing moments (‘Eternal be the sleep / If not to waken so’) the dynamics are hushed but the emotional intensity is great. I could understand why the audience applauded this splendid performance but, arguably, our applause seemed almost an impertinence. Dougan brought out the drama and vigour that characterise much of the writing in ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’. With ‘Lord, let me know mine end’ the set reaches its emotional and musical zenith. Although there are some passages of energetic music, this setting of verses from Psalm 39 is essentially valedictory in tone. Dougan shaped the music with great understanding and the singers responded with a blend of utmost musical skill and great eloquence. Parry’s setting of the words ‘Before I go hence’, right at the end, had particular emotional resonance. It is hard to imagine that the concert could have had a finer conclusion.

This was a memorable concert. The singing of The Sixteen was as expert and responsive as I had expected; there are currently a great number of superb small vocal ensembles before the public but, surely, The Sixteen is among the finest of them all. The music was discerningly chosen and perceptively woven into a most satisfying sequence. I hope that there will be another Choral Pilgrimage in 2023 and that Tewkesbury Abbey will be one of the chosen destinations. There are still a few opportunities to hear the 2022 Choral Pilgrimage programme before the end of October; for details click here.

John Quinn

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