800th-Anniversary of the University of Cambridge

The National Anthem [arr. David Willcocks]
Vaughan Williams
The Wasps – Overture
Ryan Wigglesworth
The Genesis of Secrecy [BBC commission: world premiere]
Vaughan Williams
Five Mystical Songs
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A
Come, Holy Ghost
Ascending into Heaven
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78

Simon Keenlyside (baritone)

Choirs of King’s and St John’s colleges
Choirs of Clare, Gonville & Caius, and Trinity colleges
Andrew Nethsingha [Harvey]
Stephen Cleobury [Weir]

Choirs from combined Cambridge colleges

Thomas Trotter (organ)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 22 July, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Celebrating 800 years of any educational establishment would normally offer a reasonable pool of material to draw from. When that establishment is Cambridge University you can be sure that the pool is exceptional. All the composers and named performers have an association with Cambridge – from Ralph Vaughan Williams (Cambridge Alumnus) to Camille Saint-Saëns (Cambridge honorary degree). The Royal Albert Hall was packed from floor to ceiling with various family, friends and alumni of the University who had come to support the mass chorus made up from the combined colleges. For an audience perhaps unfamiliar with concert etiquette its members were remarkably well behaved – kept coughing to a minimum and only applauded once out of place (at the end of the slow movement of Saint-Saens’s symphony.

Sir Andrew Davis. Photograph: Jim FourThe concert started at 8 p.m., which turned out to be ridiculously late for a concert of this length. Some people in the audience left at the interval and many that stayed scurried off the moment the Saint-Saëns finished. The presence of Prince Charles may have affected the start-time. The arrival of HRH cued Sir David Willcocks’s arrangement of The National Anthem – both verses, causing an audience scramble for the programme come the end of the first one. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the audience in a ‘last night’ style that was inappropriate on this occasion.

In 1909, Vaughan Williams wrote music for a Cambridge production of Aristophanes’s “The Wasps”; it is hard to believe that the original score was so extensive and contained quotations from Debussy and Lehár. This performance of the Overture was one to be forgotten. The brass invariably sounded ahead of the remainder of the orchestra in the faster sections and when the two main tunes return at the end counterpoint turned more to collision.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s 10-minute, somewhat episodic The Genesis of Secrecy was another matter all together. He has a clear understanding of orchestral colour in this largely tonal creation finding its creative seed in fragments of pieces that the composer has long admired and searching for “occult connections” between them. Wigglesworth keeps secret the identity of the originals, although there are times when one gets a satisfying feeling of déjà-vu.

Simon Keenlyside. Photograph: Uwe Arens/SonyReturning more successfully to Vaughan Williams, Cambridge’s collegiate choirs rose up for “Five Mystical Songs”, written for the Three Choirs Festival in 1911. Using poems from George Herbert’s 1633 collection “The Temple: Sacred Poems”, Vaughan Williams complements Herbert’s simple metaphorical tapestry in settings of commensurate spirituality. The first four songs are reflective in which the baritone takes the leading role, the chorus supporting. In the third section, ‘Love bade me welcome’, the chorus beautifully intoned a word-less invocation of the plainsong “O Sacrum Convivium” over Simon Keenlyside’s well-suited ‘English’ baritone. At the start of the final glorious ‘Antiphon’ (“let all the world in every corner sing”) the brass was once again out of time with the rest of the orchestra. The chorus, vocally ill-defined earlier, now found clarity for a rousing ending.

Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Magnificat and Nunc dimittis” was written while the composer was organist at Trinity College. It was fitting that Trinity College Choir, together with those of Clare and Gonville & Caius colleges, were the performers on this occasion. With reduced forces the vocal parts were now much clearer and a sympathetic orchestral accompaniment made this an enjoyable performance.

The choirs of King’s and St John’s ushered pieces by Jonathan Harvey (an alumnus of St John’s) and Judith Weir (King’s). Harvey’s a cappella “Come, Holy Ghost”, conducted by Andrew Nethsingha, dates from 1984 and was written for Winchester Cathedral and Martin Neary. The opening, with in-built acoustics underpinning soloist intonation of a plainchant melody, is both intoxicating and uplifting. Weir’s “Ascending into Heaven”, Stephen Cleobury directing, adds an organ to the mix in this setting of a Latin text by Hildebert of Lavardin, Bishop of Le Mans and Archbishop of Tours in the ninth and tenth centuries. As the title suggests the music moves from lower to upper registers with quasi-glissandos at the end. The characteristic angelic voices of the boys’ of King’s were well suited to this attractive piece, which was well-contrasted with the Harvey.

Saint Saens’s connection with Cambridge, though tenuous, was enough to include this crowd-pleaser of a symphony. Sadly, the rousing finale was overshadowed by its humdrum execution in which the strings were not together in the fugue, any more than they were in the development of the first movement. There was some nice wind-playing in the second movement, but little more.

Perhaps the concert could have been shorter and better programmed, but as a celebration of 800 years of musical excellence it fitted the bill, though no more and no less.

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