United Kingdom Vaughan Williams and Ian Venables: Petroc Trelawny (narrator), Choir of Merton College, Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia / Benjamin Nicholas (conductor). Merton College Chapel, Oxford 11.11.2022 (CR)
Vaughan Williams – ‘Lord, thou hast been our refuge’; An Oxford Elegy
Ian Venables – Requiem, Op.48
Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy (1947-9) is rarely encountered in performance, so it was fitting that this outing in his 150th anniversary should be given in that city (having been given its public premiere at The Queen’s College there, in 1952). The work conflates extracts from Matthew Arnold’s poems Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis as a melodrama, in that most of the text is spoken, with the choir given only a few verses amidst their wordless humming in the background.
Any admirer of the work will know the recording with John Westbrook’s authoritative, patrician narration, accompanied by the Jacques Orchestra under David Willcocks. Here Petroc Trelawny gave a more urgent, strenuous account, creating a sense of drama in the moment, as the text relates the legend of the Scholar Gypsy who abandoned his studies to join a group of gypsies and wander the countryside around Oxford. Benjamin Nicholas and the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia set the scene with a sense of forlorn mystery, somewhat echoing the eerie, other-worldly final movement of the Symphony No.6 which the composer had recently finished composing at the same time as the work.
The first (wordless) entry by the Merton College Choir was quiet and wispy, like a morning mist, finally dispersed with the brighter bloom of sonority at Arnold’s famous description of Oxford as ‘that sweet city with her dreaming spires’. A subsequent choral section with words was carried by singers and orchestra with a gentle jauntiness, but the way in which the chorus stole in afterwards with another wordless passage like a purposeful sigh demonstrated the masterly contrast they effected between sections with text and those without, as though two different choirs were singing in alternation. OCS held the ambience of haunted melancholy steadily throughout, working up to a more animated section in the middle seamlessly.
Opening the concert was Vaughan Williams’s setting of Psalm 90 ‘Lord, thou has been our refuge’ (1921) starting with the choir alone like a quiet incantation, or musical mumbling even, rather than the precise articulation of a definite text. The entry of the organ beyond the screen at the other end of the long nave of Merton College’s Chapel from where the choir sang, brought the work alive as though summoning it into waking consciousness, before the searing counterpoint of the uncredited trumpeter’s intoning of the hymn tune ‘St Anne’ (usually sung to ‘O God, our help in ages past’) elevated the performance to a resounding blaze of glory at the climax.
In the second half was the concert premiere of the orchestrated version of Ian Venables’s Requiem. Its designated opus number, 48, happens to be the same as that of Fauré’s setting, and there are certain similarities in the structure and musical style. But after the OCS’s sweetly spun opening by the strings alone, recalling the Elgar of Sospiri in spirit perhaps, the work more strongly evoked the model of Duruflé’s setting.
Choir and orchestra sustained a finely luminous, homogeneous texture throughout the work despite its often-opulent scoring, as though the music hovered in a meditative trance, without a solid centre of gravity. Like the Fauré and Duruflé Requiems, the ‘Pie Jesu’ features a soprano solo, though here it gives way to a choral continuation, in which the sopranos of the Merton choir seamlessly continued the clear plangent line of the unnamed vocal soloist over the lilting accompaniment in the other choral parts. In other movements, drama was provided by the more determined pace of the music, but still drawn naturally and unforced from its prevailing serenity. If the composition itself does not escape the orbit of those other influences, this was nonetheless a compelling and idiomatic performance.
Postscript: The Choir of Merton College has just released a recording of Ian Venables’s Requiem on Delphian Records and it came out on the same day as this concert (for more information about the release click here.)