Music of Five Decades – Helios

Howells
Take him, earth, for cherishing
Britten
Sacred and Profane, Op.91
Beckmann
The North Ship
Bingham
Bach’s Tomb [UK premiere]
Reich
Clapping Music
Harvey
Come, Holy Ghost
Bingham
Lacrymosa
Cage
ear for EAR
Sproson
Sinatra Suite

Peter Cook (soprano saxophone)

Ruth Beckmann (soprano)

Lindsay Richardson (mezzo-soprano)

Helios
Mark Sproson


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 29 April, 2006
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, London

Formed in 1999 by music director Mark Sproson, Helios is a choir of some thirty voices, consisting of a mix of amateur and professional singers who perform largely in the London area.

This was a wide-ranging and interesting programme, with representative pieces from the past half-century. Herbert Howells’s great motet “Take him, earth, for cherishing” was written in memory of President Kennedy and is an intensely moving setting of a Prudentius text in a translation by Helen Waddell. This performance captured the intensity of Howells’s setting, though there were one or two ragged entries and small anomalies of intonation – features which were to recur to some extent throughout this programme. But enthusiasm and goodwill compensated, to a degree, for a lack of ultimate polish and finesse.

Britten’s final completed choral work – “Sacred and Profane” – was given by five solo voices. The taxing lines and generous acoustic prevented complete clarity, but the varied moods and textures of Britten’s sometimes harmonically acrid settings of eight medieval poems (sung in ‘old’ English) came across strongly.

“The North Ship”, an early poem by Philip Larkin, was set to music in 1996 by a composer whose name was new to me – William Beckmann (1968-2002). There were some effective moments of word-painting, and a wide-ranging and often atonal saxophone obbligato provided a kind of commentary. The choral writing is strong and evocative, though the piece, whilst interesting, was possibly a little too long. The composer’s sister – Ruth Beckmann – was an expressive soloist.

Judith Bingham’s “Bach’s Tomb” was written for the BBC Singers (of whom Bingham was a one-time member) and first performed by them on their Baltic tour in 2004. Harmonies from Bach’s Trauer-Ode (Cantata 198) provided both the inspiration and the text. Bells are suggested at the opening, and the whole is meditative and memorial in character, culminating in an elegiac setting of the final line – ‘Die Nachwelt wird dich nicht vergessen’ – Posterity will not forget you.After the interval, conductor and a bass from the choir, performed Steve Reich’s Clapping Music – infectiously, but perhaps rather too fast for ideal lucidity. Jonathan Harvey’s impassioned setting of “Come Holy Ghost” is based on the traditional plainsong, and its complex lines were confidently projected – as were the solo parts including a very high-lying soprano.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to comment on Bingham’s “Lacrymosa”, originally for countertenor and soprano saxophone, here with mezzo Lindsay Richardson, as the performance broke down. An attempt to re-start proved futile. I’m not sure exactly what the problem was but saxophonist Peter Cook seemed to be unable to proceed.

However, the highlight of the evening followed – John Cage’s “ear for EAR”; more fully, and descriptively, “ear for EAR (Antiphonies) for two or more voices, one visible, the other(s) hidden”. This was written in 1983 for the tenth anniversary of the contemporary arts and music magazine “EAR”. As with many of Cage’s late pieces, there is feeling of the composer reconciling himself to traditional harmonic thinking. Eleven short phrases – some modal, some gently chromatic – are passed from one singer to another. Five members of Helios were aptly placed at various positions around the church. The result was oddly haunting and strangely beautiful.

Mark Sproson’s own arrangements of three songs made famous by Frank Sinatra – “Come fly with me”, “They can’t take that away from me” and “Mack the knife” – were given their first UK performances. Often with ‘close harmonies’ and imitating ‘big band’ sonorities, the choir’s warm-hearted delivery made for a stirring conclusion.

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