Trinity Boys Choir
Crouch End Festival Chorus
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 11 November 2007 in Royal Albert Hall, London
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5058(2) (2 CDs/SACDs) Duration: 90 minutes Reviewed: January 2008
John Foulds: A World Requiem
Reviewed by Mike Wheeler
The current interest in English composer John Foulds (1880-1939) was bound to turn the spotlight, sooner or later, on “A World Requiem”, the massive choral work he wrote between 1919 and 1921 commemorating the dead of World War I.
As the title indicates, Foulds intended it to commemorate the dead of all countries, combatant and civilian, and to offer consolation to the bereaved. Adopted as the centrepiece of the annual Festival of Remembrance commemorations in the Royal Albert Hall, London, “A World Requiem” was performed every year from 1923 to 1926, then dropped. It remained unperformed for eighty years, something guaranteed to clinch its legendary status, until the performance recorded here, in which it returned to the Royal Albert Hall for the much-publicised concert now preserved courtesy of Chandos.
Has the wait been worth it? ‘Yes and no’. Yes, in that we can now satisfy our curiosity as to what the piece actually sounds like. Yes, in that Foulds’s evident commitment to the project was admirable (Calum MacDonald’s exemplary booklet notes tell us that he wrote it without a commission or a definite performance). But the blazing originality of works like Foulds’s Three Mantras or Dynamic Triptych is only fitfully present.
Almost inevitably, Foulds’s choice of texts, mixing biblical and other sources, has drawn comparisons with Britten’s composed-later “War Requiem” (MacDonald also offers parallels with Brahms’s “A German Requiem” and Herbert Howells’s “Hymnus Paradisi”). “A World Requiem” consists of 21 sections arranged into two parts, and the overall dramatic ground-plan is effective, the first half moving from mourning and desolation to light and peace, the second from jubilant praise to final blessing with, at the end, echoes of the opening music of Part One. Some of the problem is that text: there is simply too much of it, with the result that promising ideas sometimes have no space to grow before we are moved on to the next.
The writing for orchestra and, to some extent, chorus, is often more interesting than that for the soloists. There are many ear-catching details of scoring, and the choral forces are effectively deployed, but in shaping the solo lines Foulds seems too often to fall back on a kind of oratorio-ese that engages with the words only in the most generalised way. On this evidence Foulds was no Britten, nor even a Finzi; the dichotomy is particularly acute in Section 19, ‘Promissio et Invocatio’, where the orchestral colours and harmonies suggest a ravishingly exciting tone poem lying in wait behind some mundane vocal writing.
There are occasional flashes of originality – the distant children’s voices in Section 4, ‘Jubilatio’, for instance, the wordless chorus behind the tenor soloist in Number 14, ‘Angeli’, and the occasional appearance of whole-tone scales and quarter-tones – even an early suggestion of minimalist textures – in the ‘Laudamus’ section that opens Part Two. But these are relatively few and far between.
There’s no doubting the commitment of all involved in this performance. The choir-members sing their hearts out and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s musicians relish their opportunities for colour and excitement. Of the four soloists, the most consistently satisfying performances come from Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Gerald Finley. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s persistent heavy vibrato makes uncomfortable listening; Stuart Skelton is warm-toned but does not sound entirely happy in the highest reaches.
Chandos’s recording conveys a vivid sense of the vast spaces and large forces involved, taking the extreme dynamic contrasts in its stride. Some rewarding moments, then, if you know where to find them, but overall “A World Requiem” is by no means the towering masterpiece we’d perhaps been led to expect. The lavish booklet includes the full text.