Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Julie Kennard (soprano)
William Kendall (tenor)
Colin Campbell (baritone)
The Bach Choir
English Chamber Orchestra
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 26 November, 2002
Venue: Westminster Cathedral, London
All three works in this programme are memorials of different kinds and this concert was given to commemorate “special friends and relatives.”
Although Arvo Pärt never knew Britten – he long wanted to meet him – his brief if powerful Cantus is a moving tribute. Scored for string orchestra and a single bell, the latter’s tolling, which occurs throughout, is surely reminiscent of the bells which permeate Britten’s own War Requiem. The strings respond with a descending scale that overlaps to produce clusters, eventually settling – uneasily – on a minor chord. The piece ideally needs a larger body of strings than the ECO provided on this occasion and whilst the opening was properly fragile and delicate, the lack of numbers prevented the depth and richness of sonority which is ultimately required.
Fauré’s evergreen Requiem was given in the now unfashionable full orchestral version – considered by many to be of dubious authenticity – and, of course, with a large mixed chorus, which is not how the composer conceived the work. Nevertheless, the Requiem can work on a large scale and, on the whole, this was an evocative and thoughtful performance.
The opening was taken at a very slow pace, but had intensity. The unanimity of the choral singing here and in other comparable passages was much to be admired. The main body of the movement was also measured in tempo, but flowed naturally, and dynamics were scrupulously observed. The altos and tenors opening the ’Offertorium’ were suitably devotional, but the ’Hostias’, with the baritone, seemed rather rushed and restless. Campbell projected his words clearly but lacked weight for his utterances both here and in the ’Libera me’, where a darker and more authoritative approach is needed. The ’Sanctus’ was well paced, with some appealing legato phrases from the chorus. The climax could have been more powerful – this is one of the few moments where Fauré allows dynamics and excitement to rise – the brass sounded unnecessarily restrained.
Julie Kennard replaced the indisposed Lynn Dawson and provided a maternal, comforting ’Pie Jesu’, even if one is used to younger-sounding voices in this music. The strings were warmly expressive in the opening of the ’Agnus Dei’ and the subtle shifts of harmonic colour were well realised by the choir. The ’Libera me’ would have benefited from a steadier tempo, but the climax was strongly projected. The sopranos wove their ethereal lines beautifully in the final ’In paradisum’, but whether due to the time lag or other problems of co-ordination, the organ’s rhythmic figure, which the composer places after a semiquaver rest, was played resolutely on the beat. Nevertheless, this was a convincing performance overall; the blend and tone of the large chorus was focussed and disciplined.
Herbert Howells’s nine-year-old son Michael died in 1935 and left the composer, in his own word, “frozen”. Howells’s grief eventually drew comfort from the composition of what is generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi. He withheld the score until 1950, considering it to be a “personal, almost secret document”. With the encouragement of Vaughan Williams, the work was first performed at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival.
There are six movements, four of which are essentially contemplative and grieving in character. Nevertheless, the work is infused with the sense of ’light everlasting’ and concludes with a feeling of profound consolation and solace. Although widely admired, it is not a staple of the choral repertoire, presenting as it does some considerable challenges to the chorus, which carries the brunt of the music. The choral writing is thick in texture, frequently divided into several parts, and Howells’s very personal harmonic language is often quite dissonant in character.
The Bach Choir has evidently taken Hymnus Paradisi to their collective hearts and it was indeed this choir (or, more correctly, its predecessors) who first recorded it in 1970 under Sir David Willcocks (EMI). Tuning throughout was secure and enabled one to relish the intricacy of Howells’s word-setting. David Hill steered a confident course through what is a score of considerable complexity, but Howells frequently qualifies his indications for increases in speed with the direction ’poco’ (a little). This important instruction was sometimes ignored, lending a sense of undue haste at times, especially in the already energetic third movement, a radiant combined setting of the Sanctus and Psalm 121, where much detail did not register.
The English Chamber Orchestra was audibly tackling a work that was unfamiliar to it, evinced by some problems of intonation and a lack of unanimity of ensemble. A pity, too, about unintentionally disturbing sounds from the organ, which proved most disruptive at one very quiet moment. However, a sense of commitment permeated the performance, and Julie Kennard was particularly impressive in meeting the demands of the soprano part, which is wide-ranging, and embraces quiet intimacy and more impassioned outpourings. She soared above both orchestra and chorus with ease.
William Kendall was also well suited as tenor soloist, even if onewished he had opened out to a greater extent at the more passionate moments. Unlike some music which can flounder in the resonant acoustic such as Westminster Cathedral provides, Howells’s work positively flourishes and the blazing climaxes and moments of anguish were truly effective and, in places, profoundly moving. How touching it was to read, in the programme note written by the composer’s daughter, who was present at the concert, that her father heard Hymnus Paradisi a few weeks before his death and failed to recognise that he had composed it.