Take him Earth, for Cherishing
Sonata in C for Piano and Violin, K296
Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice
Saint-Saëns, arr. Ysaÿe
Caprice d’après l’Étude en forme de Valse [for violin and piano]
Requiem, Op.48 [Original Version]
Katie Tillman (violin) & Simon Lane (piano)
Tara Overend (soprano)
Thomas Faulkner (bass)
Wimbledon Choral Society
Members of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
Norman Harper [Howells]
Reviewed by: Adam Matthews
Reviewed: 17 March, 2007
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London
This concert was remarkable in offering much rarely heard music together with Fauré’s well-known “Requiem”, albeit with a sparer and a more ‘original’ accompaniment than usual.
St John’s stands by the side of the large roundabout that sits at the foot of Waterloo Bridge. Built in the early 19th-century to commemorate Wellington’s final victory, perhaps the railway station and the bridge take their name from their elegant neighbour.
When the new church opened, in the 1820s, the surrounding scene must still have been some years ahead of the factory chimneys that brought such promising tints to Monet’s palette in his suite in the Savoy. Even so, today’s audiences are clearly happy to take the train to Waterloo Station and enjoy genuinely personal music-making in more than half-decent surroundings.
At this concert, the chamber of the church fairly seethed with an attentive audience that far outnumbered the choir of some 150 voices. The atmosphere had more in keeping with a bunch of friends keen to keep their enthusiasms aglow in a small provincial town, than with a bunch of sophisticates from a well-heeled corner of London, singing their socks off to the glory of God and man. How the good people of Wimbledon ever believed Merton Council’s promise to rebuild their Town Hall is one of the wonders of the modern world. In its place, they have a soul-destroying shopping mall; which is why SW19 flocks to Waterloo to hear its choir.
The main work was Fauré’s rather gentle vision of death, which benefited from the spare accompaniment afforded by a more original version of the score than usual. The only serious blot on the landscape came from the resident organ’s feebleness and dubious tuning. Several times the players of a reduced New Queen’s Hall Orchestra found themselves at cross-purposes with the pitch from the gallery, which was a pity as the warmth of their phrasing added a wonderful, additional vocal quality to the choir’s efforts. The Wimbledon Choral Society has apparently given a number of performances in recent years with the NQHO en masse. On this evening, the Orchestra fielded four violas, four cellos, a double bass and a pair of horns. The dark, ripe Romantic quality of gut-strung instruments suited Fauré’s conception to perfection, being darkly expressive with none of the brazenness that modern audiences have grown to expect from strings. Indeed, it was a shame that Katie Tillman took the violin solos on metal strings.
Apart from numerous thrilling moments from the choir, the most telling moments of the whole evening came when the NQHO’s ‘old’ French horns let rip, without swamping the choir and audience in sheer size of sound. Indeed, it is the ability of narrow-bore brass instruments to deliver an exciting bite without looking for world domination, which is one of the joys of hearing the NQHO.
Michael Ashcroft is a conductor of huge experience and his direction of this rather somnolent work lacked nothing in reverence and understanding. Only occasionally did one feel that he let the ‘music speak for itself’ a little too often. Such a concept is fine in principle, but often fails to work in practice by losing momentum. Holding a movement in an undeviating tempo is a widespread, modern trait, which one doubts Fauré and his friends would have appreciated. Romantic music was surely concerned too much with the self and with the passion of the individual to be overly bothered with a corporate approach to destiny. If Ashcroft would only let go and honour his musical instincts, he would become a great choral conductor. He has everything else in place. The conductors of earlier generations used to press forward when they got among the short notes and held back when they reached the longer ones: that way there was always a sense of progress, of going on a journey, of the bar-line sloping forwards.
The soloists were the beautifully clear and angelic-sounding Tara Overend, who took full advantage of the ringing acoustic of St John’s to float a line of transparent quality, and the less gracious-sounding bass, Thomas Faulkner, whose voice sounded rather monotonous and ungenerous. Something altogether freer was needed.
The concert opened with Herbert Howells’s demanding, “Take him, Earth for Cherishing”. Composed to commemorate the death of John F. Kennedy the work was commissioned for the late President’s memorial service in the National Cathedral, Washington. Written for two choirs, the composer’s expectations brought huge pressure to bear on the Wimbledon singers’ intonation and their ability to hold the pitch. Norman Harper, otherwise the choir’s organist, directed this challenging work with skill and aplomb. According to the programme-note, “this fine motet soon became extremely popular among choirs capable of interpreting its harmonic and rhythmic complexities … and was sung at Howells’s own memorial service in the chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1983”. Much affected by his son’s death, Howells’s music has the restrained passion that has made English music so poignantly affecting since Dowland’s time. Time and again, one felt the presence of anguish too deep to be expressed through any other means than music. Considering the difficulty of the work, the Wimbledon Choral Society delivered the sense of the piece with ease, although it failed to provide the security and precision of professionals: but professionals quite often deliver the notes alone – and I know which approach I prefer.
Gerald Finzi’s “Lo, the Final Sacrifice” is yet another of that fine, yet still neglected composer’s heartfelt works. Composed for a parish church in Northampton, the work was prompted by the powerful effect of Richard Crawshaw’s words. Crawshaw (1612-1649) enjoyed the usual short life of the 17th-century, and wrote with the passionate intensity of a person who expected to die at a moment’s notice: such people put things off at their peril and lived with furious intensity. Finzi may not have been conventionally religious, yet he produced a religious piece with this anthem and the Wimbledon Choral Society certainly did it justice under Ashcroft’s direction, with a skilful control of dynamics that found no one pushing through his or her tone in pursuit of sheer volume. The organ accompanied this performance and not the orchestra, for which Finzi subsequently arranged this piece for the Three Choirs Festival.
In between these choral pieces, Katie Stillman and Simon Lane played Mozart’s Piano and Violin Sonata, K 296 and Caprice d’après l’Étude en forme de Valse by Saint-Saëns in a transcription by Ysaÿe. ‘Piano and Violin’ is to list the instruments correctly, for the piano has nearly all the action. Despite the programme note advising how much more of the limelight the violin enjoys in this work than in Mozart’s earlier sonatas, the difference was not that great with the pianist still chattering away with little chance for the violinist to add anything much beyond some wifely nagging.
As a performance, and in truth, the opening movement was relentless in its failure to breathe. Perhaps, old-fashioned performances were too indulgent in turning corners, especially when reaching the second subject, but the modern habit of heading for goal in a straight line has surely been done-to-death. A glimpse of expression would be welcome, every now and then.
However, the Saint-Saëns (originally a piano piece) suited both players far more. With the violinist liberated by a far more rewarding part, she more than matched the previous dominance of the ‘collaborative pianist’. Indeed, the stiffness of the Mozart now no longer mattered in music of a more glandular involvement. This rarely heard piece came alive and both players went for it with panache. Were they to bring some of the humanity they displayed in the Saint-Saëns to the Mozart, they would be far more successful in overcoming the Master’s failure to deliver a satisfying sonata.
Despite this quibble, this was a concert of real people making real music and a great joy to witness. Perfection comes later.