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Compact and Imaginative

Judith Bingham's 'Shakespeare Requiem'
receives its first performance,


The long awaited première of Judith Bingham's Shakespeare Requiem took place in Leeds Town Hall, UK, on 29 November 2008. The opening of the newly built town hall in 1858 was celebrated with the formation of a grand choral society -- the Leeds Festival Chorus -- and its first musical director, William Sterndale Bennett, initiated a tradition of first performances in the autumn of that year by directing the first performance of his own cantata The May Queen. The tradition of bringing new works to Leeds has remained with the Festival Chorus throughout its century and a half lifetime. A succession of distinguished directors maintained the tradition by commissioning new choral works, and the chorus have brought to life a fine inventory of great choral premiers including Sullivan's Golden Legend and Dvorák's St Ludmilla in 1886 and Elgar's Caractacus in 1898 through to Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, the memorable commission of 1931, and Michael Berkeley's The Red Macula of 1989.

For this year's 150th Anniversary celebration, Judith Bingham could hardly be a more ideal choice. A student of both composition and singing in her time at London's Royal Academy of Music, she joined the BBC Singers in 1983 and spent twelve years as a full time member, becoming closely involved from the inside in the many challenges of both new and old music that such a renowned professional group of singers would undertake on a weekly basis. As may be expected, there is a large amount of choral music in her considerable output -- her catalogue has recently been taken up by Peters Edition, London -- and yet the new work for Leeds is her largest choral and orchestral undertaking to date.

The Shakespeare Requiem is a compact and imaginative combination of carefully chosen extracts from the Latin mass, sung by the chorus, with timeless words from the speeches of Shakespearian monarchs which were well delivered by soloists Mary Plazas (soprano) and Giles Underwood (baritone). These chosen texts are designed to be ageless so that the overall sentiment might apply to any time and any country. The scoring for large orchestra and much percussion proved judicious and skilful -- the huge battery of percussion on the platform was at first alarming, and yet Bingham's care to use only what was really needed at the key points of the work dispelled all fears of any percussive avalanche!

The whole Requiem is presented with colourful operatic imagery: a king and queen at the funeral of their only son repent bad military decisions during their reign over their war-torn country and 'broker an uneasy peace'. Organ and quietly insistent drums open a climactic choral climb through Absolve Domine -- the funeral cortege -- over which the soprano emerges beautifully though with some difficulty against the heavy forces of chorus and orchestra, perhaps betraying a degree of misjudgement in the otherwise exemplary scoring.

The Libera me follows without a break, with a portrayal of an inconsolable Queen and the baritone soloist singing 'Comfort thyself as I do, gentle Queen, with sharp unheard of dire revenge!' (the sources of these little known Shakespearian speeches are not given in the programme) and later the soprano's 'O pity God, this miserable age!' as the King's vengeance brings more misery to the disputing countries. The third of the work's five sections, Liber scriptus, has a Walton-like buoyancy with its 'seven-to-a-bar' syncopations as the king feels the full weight of his rash actions.

An effectively peaceful Salva me in broad melodic lines and well woven counterpoint at its centre precede the reprise of the disturbing rhythms of the opening, ending peacefully with the questions emerging from the Latin. Clarinet and cor-anglais with sustained high string textures haunt the Lacrymosa in which the Queen is alone and wandering by the sea (the soprano sings 'Lacrymosa! I am the sea, hark how her sighs do blow ...') and with accompanying chimes, closes with the optimism of minor turning to major. The final Lux aeterna during which the King addresses his court is heralded in with brass and drums, and shines out in glorious choral writing only to drift away with that optimistic wavering between modes and the baritone quoting: 'tis strange that death should sing'.

This is a beautiful new work, sensitive, cohesive and clearly heard and would, in my experience of the great man, have delighted her one time teacher and mentor, the late Hans Keller. The conductor and music director to the Chorus, commanding with admirable commitment, is Simon Wright, and it is he who over the past 25 years has inspired this valiant band of singers to ever greater achievements with ever more challenging scores. In this performance he also conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for what will no doubt be a future BBC broadcast and hopefully a recording -- we await with pleasurable anticipation.

Copyright © 4 December 2008 Patric Standford, Wakefield UK


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