Saint Cecilia Singers premiere an important and moving new work by Neil Cox in Gloucester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Byrd, Cox, Williams, Allegri, Bernstein: Tom Lilburn (countertenor), Piers Maxim (organ), Laura Morris (French horn), Cecily Beer (harp), Jack Redman (keyboard), Diggory Seacome, Anna Newman (percussion), Ivan Barritt (sound engineer); Saint Cecilia Singers / Jonathan Hope (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral 22.3.2024. (JQ)

Saint Cecilia Singers

Byrd – Ave Verum Corpus
Neil Cox – Requiem Canticles (world premiere)
Roderick Williams – Ave Verum Corpus Reimagined
Allegri – Miserere
Bernstein – Chichester Psalms

Donald Hunt (1930-2018) is particularly remembered as the distinguished Organist of Worcester Cathedral, a post he held from 1976 to 1996. Right at the start of his career he served as Assistant Organist at Gloucester Cathedral and during that time he founded the Saint Cecilia Singers (SCS) in 1949. The choir, which numbers around thirty singers, has gone on to establish a reputation as an elite chamber choir, conducted by Hunt’s various successors at Gloucester Cathedral. The present Artistic Director is Jonathan Hope, Assistant Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral since 2014. This concert was a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the SCS.

The programme opened with Byrd’s exquisite Ave Verum Corpus. I thought Jonathan Hope paced the music in an ideal fashion; he and his singers ensured that every vocal line emerged clearly. The concluding ‘Amen’ sounded magical in the cathedral’s resonant acoustic.

I have been waiting to hear Neil Cox’s Requiem Canticles for four years. It was commissioned by SCS to mark their 70th anniversary and the premiere was scheduled for March 2020; in the event, just days before the concert was due to take place the UK was put into the first Covid lockdown. The resulting long delay must have been equally frustrating for the composer and for SCS, though I understand that during this period Cox took the opportunity to make some revisions to his score. Neil Cox’s name may not be as widely known as it deserves to be. Born in South Wales in 1955, he was an Organ Scholar at Cambridge, after which he taught at Lancing College, Sussex; he became Director of Music there in 1978 and after 41 years at Lancing College, he retired to Gloucester. I have heard a number of pieces by him, including his choral work War in Heaven (review here), some church music – which was recorded by the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral – and a couple of songs which James Gilchrist sang a few years ago (review here). These previous encounters with Cox’s music had whetted my appetite to hear Requiem Canticles.

The work, which in this performance played for 36 minutes, is cast in eight sections. Cox explained in a programme note that the commission ‘gave me the opportunity to revisit some of my work from the past, to incorporate it into a bigger work alongside new movements, and to build the structure anew’. I am not in a position to say which parts of Requiem Canticles are recycled from past music but if the composer’s remark suggests a patchwork score, I can only say that, though the movements were differentiated from each other, I found on a first hearing that the score had a cohesive unity. Furthermore, an important structural device was the revisitation in the last movement of material heard at the very opening of the work (a device which, by coincidence, Bernstein also adopted in Chichester Psalms).

Requiem Canticles is scored for solo countertenor, SATB choir and a small ensemble. The ensemble consists of horn, harp, percussion (2 players), keyboard and organ. There is one additional and important element. In the first and last movements Cox has included the sound of recorded church bells and, moreover, the bells of a very specific church. He explained in his note that in 2016 he visited the German city of Speyer. There, the immense Romanesque Cathedral has a peal of bells which Cox described as ‘all-encompassing’; so much so that he recorded them on his iPad and it is that recording which he incorporated into Requiem Canticles. I think it is worth saying two things about Cox’s use of a fairly small instrumental ensemble. Firstly, it is a very pragmatic decision at a time when choirs find their finances under pressure; putting on a performance of Requiem Canticles won’t break the bank. Secondly, though only a small group of instruments is involved, the range of colours and textures is in no way inhibited; rather, Cox seems to find unerringly the appropriate – and exciting – instrumental timbres at every point in the score.

The first two movements, ‘Requiescant – Kyrie’ and ‘Dies irae’ set Latin words from the Mass for the Dead. A tense atmosphere was distilled right at the start in the instrumental introduction, but once the choir began to sing, I thought there was warmth in the harmonies. Cox sets only the first four stanzas of the ‘Dies irae’ (reaching as far as ‘Mors stupebit’). The music is very dramatic and intense. There was a problem of balance, though. Here, and in the first movement, the ensemble often drowned the choir. I could see that the singers were articulating punchy rhythms but what they were singing was not sufficiently audible. I suspect that at future performances these problems would be avoided if either the choir was larger and/or positioned on raised staging – preferably both.

The ‘Dies irae’ led without a break into a setting of the poem ‘Imagined Voices’ by the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933). This provided much-needed contrast with the tumult of the ‘Dies irae’, not only in terms of the sentiments expressed but also in the music itself. The movement is for the solo counter tenor, whose music is very lightly accompanied. The soloist, Tom Lilburn, is a Lay Clerk at St George’s Chapel. He was excellent in this Cavafy setting; his plangent tone rang out effortlessly down the cathedral nave and the sheer sound of his voice was ideally suited to Cox’s music. There was a pared-back simplicity to this movement which appealed strongly. The next movement, again lightly scored, is a setting for the choir of Psalm 23. This is a radiant piece. The melodic invention is lovely and the harmonies beautifully imagined. It is a fine response to the words of the psalm and I had the impression that the members of SCS had taken this music to their hearts.

Tom Lilburn returned for movement 5, ‘Sanctus’. Initially, the choir provided a backdrop to his solo line; hereabouts the instrumental accompaniment to the soloist was gamelan-like. At ‘Pleni sunt cæli’ the choir’s music had much greater intensity and energy; I was put in mind of the same passage in Britten’s War Requiem. There follows a hymn-like setting of Psalm 121 (‘I to the hills lift up mine eyes’). The source for the words is the New England Bay Psalter (1640), the first book printed in British North America (so I learned from Neil Cox’s note). The music is treated differently in each of the four verses; I thought it was a very effective setting, mirroring well both the Psalm itself and the seventeenth-century English.

The Psalm was followed attacca by a setting of famous lines from St Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians (‘Though I speak with the voice of angels and mortals but have not love…’) Initially, the words are sung by the soloist – Lilburn was truly eloquent here – with a delicate instrumental accompaniment and the choir gently in the background. The choir moved to the fore at ‘Love is the voice of patience and kindness’; here, the words were set to a winning, warm melody. The music built to a strong affirmation before the soloist had the last word (literally), thrice singing very quietly the word ‘Love’. By way of a lovely organ transition, the final movement followed without a break. Here, Cox draws the whole work together. The choir sings ‘The Resurrection Prayer’ of St Augustine of Hippo (‘We shall rest and we shall see…’) The choir’s music is homophonic, very beautiful and has an unquestionable sincerity. St Augustine’s prayer ends with ‘Amen, Alleluia’ which Cox makes into a warm and impressive climax. Then, he revisits the material of the work’s opening, including the Speyer bells, before Requiem Canticles achieves a hushed and very satisfying conclusion. A silence followed, indicating how the music had resonated with the audience; we needed a little time to digest it.

Nei Cox has composed a most impressive and moving work. An inspired selection of texts and inventive, attractive music exerted a powerful appeal to the audience who accorded both composer and work an enthusiastic ovation. I am sure everyone felt, as I did, that we had been present at the unveiling of an important composition. I am impatient to hear it again and I hope other choirs will take it up. I should be particularly interested to hear it sung by a larger choir. That is not to suggest for a second that the performance by the Saint Cecilia Singers was inadequate in any way – their singing was assured, accomplished and committed throughout – but whilst the work is admirably suited to a chamber choir, a larger vocal ensemble would add a different dimension to the music.

Having opened the concert with Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, it was a shrewd bit of programme planning by Jonathan Hope to begin the second half with Roderick Williams’ Ave Verum Corpus Reimagined. Over the last few years, Suzi Digby and the ORA Singers have carved out a niche by inviting composers to write new works inspired by pieces of Tudor and Renaissance polyphony. Roderick Williams’ Byrd-inspired piece was one of the very first and, though I have heard and admired many subsequent new works commissioned by ORA, Williams’ composition is, I think, still one of the best. I have admired it since I heard its debut recording (review). Williams designed the piece for three choirs. On this occasion the physical separation of the three groups was not very pronounced but one could still hear the three elements distinctly. I love the way Williams keeps Byrd’s original music very firmly in our earshot but uses it as a springboard to explore spatial and harmonic possibilities. I thought that Hope and the SCS gave a fine account of this most imaginative tribute to William Byrd.

Allegri also uses spatial differentiation in his celebrated Miserere. For this, Jonathan Hope sent the solo quartet deep into the cathedral quire. Standing at the foot of the high altar steps, they were a long way from the main ensemble, who were positioned in front of the organ screen. The quartet was not too far away that their voices could not be heard clearly, but the distancing was most effective. I acknowledge I am in a minority, but I think that in this piece Allegri makes a little musical material go an awfully long way. This performance did nothing to change my mind, though I did admire the skill of the singing and I appreciated the way Jonathan Hope injected momentum into the music.

It must have seemed incongruous when in 1965 the Dean of Chichester, Walter Hussey (1909-1985) commissioned Leonard Bernstein to write a choral work for the cathedral’s Music Festival. Hussey was a generous, wide-ranging and far-sighted patron of the arts, both when he was Vicar of St Matthew’s Northampton and later Dean of Chichester. Among the important works we owe to his patronage are Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice and visual works by artists such as Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. Nonetheless, even with such a track record it was a bold move for Hussey to approach the composer of West Side Story. As luck would have it, Hussey’s request came when Bernstein was taking a sabbatical from his role as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in order to focus on composition. One suspects that the commission to write what became a collection of three movements of psalm settings gave Bernstein a welcome opportunity to express in music his Jewish heritage. The original version of Chichester Psalms is scored for treble soloist, SATB choir and an orchestra of strings, two harps, brass and percussion but this performance used the composer’s own reduction for harp, organ and percussion. Though Bernstein conceived the solo role for a treble it has become at least as common for a countertenor to sing the role, as here; I prefer that approach.

I felt that the performance of the first of the three movements was not entirely successful. Though the work was written for performance in a cathedral (at Chichester), a resonant acoustic can blunt the lively choral writing and, despite the energetic response of SCS that happened here. This music ideally needs a crisper acoustic. The principal problem, though, was that the organ sound was muddy and lacked the clarity which strings would have brought to the music. The percussion, too, lacked crispness, though I think this was the ‘fault’ of the acoustic rather than the players. All such concerns were banished, however, in the second movement, which is principally a setting for the soloist of Psalm 23. Tom Lilburn gave an absolutely outstanding performance. He sang with great expression and a wonderful purity of tone, his voice soaring in a most affecting way. After the performance I talked to a friend of mine, a seasoned singer and vocal teacher, who said she had never heard this solo sung better. I can only agree; it was the highlight of the entire evening. In the concluding movement, Bernstein shows no little compositional skill in bringing back material from the first two movements and weaving them into his design. But what makes the movement so memorable is the wonderful melody to which he sets the words from Psalm 131. The tune is like an endlessly flowing stream and it blossomed in the warm Gloucester Cathedral acoustic. Bernstein’s hushed ending transforms the jagged motif heard at the very start of the work into something that is pacific and profound. As had been the case with the Cox piece, a respectful silence rightly followed this committed performance.

With this concert, the Saint Cecila Singers marked their 75th anniversary in great style. Jonathan Hope had prepared them very carefully for this programme and he conducted the wide range of music most effectively.  The choir can take great satisfaction, not just from the excellence of their performances but also from the fact that their anniversary commission has resulted in a new work which deserves to become an important addition to the choral repertoire.

John Quinn

Leave a Comment