Belfast Philharmonic Choir’s accomplished performance of Stanford’s rarely performed Requiem

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stanford, Requiem, Op.63: Mary McCabe (soprano), Cicely Hé (mezzo-soprano), Aaron O’Hare (tenor), Brendan Collins (baritone), Belfast Philharmonic Choir, Ulster Orchestra / James Grossmith (conductor), Ulster Hall, Belfast, 5.11.2023. (RB)

James Grossmith conducts the Belfast Philharmonic Choir

This Belfast Philharmonic Society presented this premiere performance of Stanford’s Requiem in Belfast to commemorate the centenary of the composer’s death. Stanford was a highly successful composer in the last two decades of the nineteenth century writing seven symphonies and nine operas. His music was eclipsed in the twentieth century by Elgar and other British composers. Nowadays, he is mostly known to us by his ecclesiastical choral works, including several services for the Anglican communion.

Standford’s Requiem was commissioned for the Birmingham Festival in 1897 and was composed in memory of the painter Lord Leighton. It received some attention during the twentieth century and was championed by Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Adrian Boult among others. The Requiem has a large-scale symphonic structure, and some sections show Standford’s flair for the dramatic and the influence of Verdi.

The Belfast Philharmonic Choir accompanied by the Ulster Orchestra’s lower strings ushered in the hushed opening of the Introit. The choir sang with clarity and beauty of tone and perfect intonation. In the Kyrie Stanford moves from homophonic to contrapuntal writing and the choir brought enormous clarity to the contrapuntal lines. The four soloists blended beautifully in the Gradual third movement against a sensitive accompaniment from the Ulster Orchestra.

The heart of the Requiem is the Dies Irae which falls into fifteen short sections. Following a dramatic build up in the opening section, James Grossmith did an excellent job whipping up the orchestral forces in the Tuba Mirum while the voices of the choir rang out across the Ulster Hall. The soloists provided intimate reflections on the text and moments of gorgeous lyricism in subsequent sections. All four of the soloists sang beautifully although occasionally, the balance between them and the orchestra was not quite right. The brass section was impressive in the opening of the ‘Confutatis’ as the music caught fire once more. The four soloists combined to ratchet up the dramatic tension in the chromatic harmonies of the ‘Lacrimosa’ while the final ‘Pie Jesu’ provided consolation after the turbulence. This final movement was exquisite and performed with luminous beauty by soloists, choir and orchestra.

The very high standard of singing and playing continued in the final three movements. The high point of the Offertorium is the ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ where Standford’s fugal and contrapuntal skills are on clear display. Grossmith injected enormous energy into this section and kept the entries tightly coordinated. Choir and orchestra displayed enormous agility and combined to give a highly charged display.

The ‘Sanctus’ is a rare moment of ethereal beauty where the soprano and alto overlapping parts suggest the beating of angel wings. The choir’s performance was gorgeous, perfectly realising Standford’s complex textures while maintaining the lyrical flow of the music. The four soloists displayed enormous eloquence in the subsequent section before the angel wings returned once more in the ‘Osanna’. Grossmith coaxed dark timbres from the Ulster Orchestra’s strings and anguished cries from the Choir and soloists in the funereal Agnus Dei. This contrasted vividly and powerfully with the luminous final ‘Lux Aeterna’.

I hope the centenary of Stanford’s death will provide an opportunity for the public to hear more of his music. His opera, The Critic, will be performed at the Wexford Opera Festival next year. Congratulations to James Grossmith and his team for giving such an accomplished performance of the Requiem.

Robert Beattie         

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