Gloucestershire honours the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 150th Birthday Concert – Vaughan Williams, Imogen Holst, Rebecca Clarke: James Gilchrist (tenor), Quentin Hayes (baritone), The Carducci Quartet, James Wilshire (piano), David Ayre (double bass), Cheltenham Chamber Choir / Ben Sawyer (conductor). Pittville Pump Rooms, Cheltenham, 12.10.2022. (JQ)

Carducci Quartet © Tom Barnes

Vaughan Williams – Serenade to Music; Three Elizabethan Part Songs; On Wenlock Edge; Sun, Moon, Stars and Man; Five Mystical Songs

Imogen Holst – A Hymne to Christ

Rebecca Clarke – Poem

During 2022, the musical world has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of one of the UK’s greatest composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams. His connections with Gloucestershire were significant. He was born in the village of Down Ampney, near Cirencester, and although he and his family moved away only a few years later after the sudden death of his father, he kept links with the county, not least through the Three Choirs Festival.

Fittingly, the Three Choirs Festival, in association with Gloucester Cathedral, marked the actual anniversary of his birth with two days of celebratory musical events. I was unable to attend either of the events on 13 October: a ‘Come and Sing’ event exploring the Five Mystical Songs and other works; and an event entitled ‘Fantasias by Candlelight’ in which Clio Gould and the Sainsbury Royal Academy Soloists performed a programme of English music for strings in Gloucester Cathedral. The latter event included the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis: how pleasing that this masterpiece should be played as part of this 150th anniversary celebration in the Cathedral where, at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival, it was first performed.

The two events on the anniversary day itself constituted a fine homage to VW. Choral Evensong was broadcast live from Gloucester Cathedral by BBC Radio 3. The Director of Music, Adrian Partington had devised a discerning musical programme which included two pieces by VW: O clap your hands and the magnificent Lord, thou hast been our refuge. I was especially intrigued to hear the Evening Canticles, Op 55, composed in 1959 by Ruth Gipps (1921-1999), a composition pupil of VW at the RCM. I have heard – and enjoyed – several of Gipps’ orchestral pieces but I had never heard her setting of the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ and, indeed, had only recently become aware of their existence.

I was obliged to listen to the service live on Radio 3. Even if I had been present, it is not really appropriate to review in the conventional sense a church service, so I will content myself by saying that the music was performed to the very high standards one has come to associate with Gloucester Cathedral. The Gipps Canticles were accomplished and impressive. I was especially struck by the important alto solo – very well sung – in the Magnificat and the arresting ‘Glory be’ which closed both canticles. I hope that the Gloucester Cathedral choir will keep them in their regular repertoire and, indeed, that other cathedral and collegiate choirs will investigate them. (Readers with access to BBC Sounds can hear the service for themselves for the next 30 days.)

Having heard, via the radio, music from the resonant acoustic of Gloucester’s magnificent medieval Cathedral, in the evening I found myself amid the Regency opulence of Cheltenham’s Pittville Pump Rooms where the acoustic in the main hall is rather more intimate. A fine array of musicians had been assembled to celebrate the VW anniversary, including the sixteen members of the Cheltenham Chamber Choir. This was a group of professional singers, either Gloucestershire-based or with links to the county, which had been formed specifically for this event. An indication of the quality of the group is that both of the vocal soloists were amongst their ranks.

The choir was straight into action, performing the miraculous invention that is Serenade to Music. I learned from the excellent programme notes that the performance was given in an ‘authorised arrangement’ by Elizabeth Bowden. The arrangement, which I have not previously encountered, was made for organ and string quintet. Since the venue did not have an organ, the pragmatic decision was made to substitute a piano.  Of course, one missed the magic of VW’s orchestral scoring but I found that my ears very soon adjusted, thanks to sensitive playing by the six instrumentalists – the silvery violin solos of Matthew Denton were a special pleasure. In a relatively small hall, the sound was quite immediate but that brought gains in that detail registered. The sixteen singers sang the piece very well indeed. It would be invidious to single out any one of them for the way in which the individual short solos were delivered; all were excellent. I could not help but notice, though, that everyone engaged with the words. When the full ensemble sang out at such moments as ‘Such harmony is in immortal souls’, and even more at ‘And draw her home with music’, the collective sound was thrilling. I thought the instrumental arrangement worked very well; I would like to hear it again with the sustaining sound of an organ.

The choir then sang the Three Elizabethan Part Songs. This is an early work for a cappella chorus, dating from 1899. Two of the settings use words by Shakespeare while the third takes lines by George Herbert. The programme note described them as ‘simple but charming in nature’, which I think hits the nail on the head. Though VW’s fascination with folk song lay just around the corner at this point in his career, there was a very strong modal influence in the harmonies. I must have heard the songs before, but I can’t really recall them. I liked them a lot and the high quality of their performance made the best possible case for them; they should be more widely performed.

Just nine years later came one of VW’s early masterpieces. For On Wenlock Edge (1908) James Gilchrist was joined by the Carducci Quartet and James Wilshire. Gilchrist briefly introduced the cycle and reminded us that, in making his selection of six poems from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, VW focussed on poems which expressed the transience of life. There followed a very fine performance indeed. Gilchrist is a renowned exponent of these songs. His plangently expressive tone is ideally suited to the music and, in addition, his clarity of diction ensures that the words come across very well. But his way with the words went way beyond ‘mere’ clarity of diction; he communicated the words vividly to the listener, both through his inflection of them and through his physical gesticulations. It would not be an exaggeration to say that on this occasion he inhabited the songs. For example, in ‘Is my team ploughing?’ I admired the way Gilchrist vividly contrasted the two voices: the innocent pallor of the dead young man set against the increasingly guilt-ridden agitation of his friend who has survived. ‘Bredon Hill’ received a gripping performance as the sound of the bells which illustrate the tale move from early happiness to the tragedy of premature loss. Gilchrist’s singing drew us into the drama. This song was an excellent example of how all six musicians combined to tell the story. The instrumental accompaniment was tellingly weighted so that the various iterations of the church bells all made their effect; nowhere was this more evident than in the chill ambience that players and singer created for the verse that begins ‘but when the snows at Christmas’. Earlier, in the title song, the players ideally suggested the turbulent winds blowing around Wenlock Edge. This was a gripping performance of the song cycle, into which the performers drew me very strongly.

After the interval break, much needed after the intensity of On Wenlock Edge, we heard a rarity in the shape of Sun, Moon, Stars and Man. In 1951 VW composed a cantata, The Sons of Light, which was designed to be sung by young singers supported by a professional orchestra. The choral writing is all in unison. The first performance, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, involved no fewer than 1150 young singers. Ursula Vaughan Williams wrote the texts for the cantata. I don’t believe it is performed very often nowadays, though I have encountered it through two recordings (review). The cantata takes about 20 minutes to perform. In 1955, VW recycled some of the music into a shorter four-movement work, Sun, Moon, Stars and Man, which can be performed either with strings and piano or, as tonight, just with piano. I wouldn’t say that the music is vintage VW but it is well worth hearing, not least because it proves how effective unison voices can be. Here, of course, we had luxury casting in the form of the Cheltenham Chamber Choir. They sang the music very well, as one would expect, and made a particularly strong impact in the big confident tune that VW provided for the last section, ‘The Song of the Sons of Light’. Inevitably, given the use of unison voices, a great deal of the musical interest lies in the accompaniment. James Wilshire gave a very fine account of the piano part. I haven’t listened to The Sons of Light in years; this performance convinced me I should rectify that omission soon.

Imogen Holst (1907-1984) was a composition student of VW at the RCM; in addition, of course, she was the daughter of the composer’s dear friend, Gustav Holst. Thus, the inclusion of a short piece by her was doubly justified. A Hymne to Christ is an unaccompanied setting of words by John Donne, composed in 1940. I have heard this before on CD, but never live. The piece is beautiful; the music is highly accomplished and Holst responded very acutely to Donne’s poetry. Expertly performed by the choir, I was very glad to hear this work tonight.

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was a pupil of Stanford at the RCM, which she attended between 1907 and 1910. There, I learned from the programme, she ‘crossed paths’ with VW. I have heard too little of her music and Poem (1926) for string quartet was new to me. Apparently, it lay unperformed until as recently as 2002. It is a piece that lasts about eight minutes and, frankly, when one hears a performance as expressive and skilful as from the Carducci Quartet, its neglect is hard to understand. Much of the piece is slow-moving and suffused with autumnal melancholy, though there is a short central section in which the music moves a bit more swiftly. Though the piece begins in a subdued vein it quickly acquires significant intensity. I admired the music very much. It received a marvellous performance from the Carducci Quartet. Their playing was full of feeling, finesse and an evident empathy not just for the music but for each other’s musical contributions. This was a short but very fine demonstration of the collaborative art of quartet playing.

A year after the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia was unveiled at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, VW returned to the 1911 Festival, held in Worcester, for the first performance of another early masterpiece, Five Mystical Songs. All the performers reassembled on the platform to perform the work and as Ben Sawyer gave the downbeat, I settled back to enjoy one of my favourite VW works. But what was this? Why were the Carducci Quartet playing what sounded like a fragment from the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia? All quickly became clear as the choir sang ‘Happy Birthday to you’ for VW. This, I later learned, was an arrangement by Sawyer himself. Cleverly, he rolled in the concluding bars of the last of the Five Mystical Songs right at the end. This witty, affectionate little tribute was perfectly placed in the programme and was a delightful surprise.

Then we did indeed hear Five Mystical Songs. For this Sawyer used the composer’s own arrangement for strings and piano. On this occasion, the string forces were pared down to one instrument per part, but it worked very well indeed in tonight’s context. Quentin Hayes was an accomplished soloist; his voice was clear and firmly produced and his diction was admirable. He and the choir conveyed the ecstasy of ‘Easter’ very well. I liked the way Hayes put over the gentle lyricism of ‘Love bade me welcome’ in which the rapt closing section (‘You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat’) was a particular pleasure; here, after the singers had finished, the instrumentalists continued the rapt mood in the coda. The concluding ‘Antiphon’ was marvellous. ‘Let all the world in evr’y corner sing’ proclaimed the tenors and basses right at the start; the collective ring in their voices was absolutely thrilling, a real call to attention. The performance that followed was full of joy and fervour, but I noticed – not that it came as a surprise – how responsive these singers were to VW’s dynamic contrasts. This thrilling performance set the seal on a wonderful tribute to Ralph Vaughan Williams.

This was a memorable concert. As I hope I have made clear, the performances were uniformly excellent. One person who hasn’t received sufficient credit is Ben Sawyer. He conducted all the works in which he was involved with authority and evident empathy for and understanding of the music. A singer himself, he knew just how to get the best out of his expert singers. He deserves credit also for so perceptively designing the programme. All the music was well chosen and the order in which the pieces were presented was shrewd. He also judged correctly the inclusion of apposite pieces by two other composers. There was just enough music by those two composers to provide a contrast to the VW pieces but not to such a degree as to deflect the focus from the man of the hour.

This concert was a splendid and rewarding tribute to Ralph Vaughan Williams

John Quinn                 

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