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In Memory of Hickox

Vaughan Williams' 'Sancta Civitas',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


The Bach Choir's autumn concert at London's Royal Festival Hall (27 November 2008) was probably planned as a fitting coda to this year's celebrations of Ralph Vaughan Williams' centenary. The centrepiece of the concert being RVW's large, complex and rarely performed oratorio Sancta Civitas. This was accompanied by the first London performance of Herbert Howells' Sir Patrick Spens, a work which the choir has just recorded, and the concert finished with Howells' own orchestral version of the Te Deum from Collegium Regale.

Somewhere along the way the concert also aptly acquired the world première of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' A Birthday Card for Prince Charles. Apt because His Royal Highness is the choir's patron.

More soberly the concert was also dedicated to the memory of Richard Hickox, a conductor who has been much associated with this repertoire. The Bach Choir's Musical Director opened the concert with a moving tribute to Hickox, followed by a performance of RVW's Tallis Fantasia. This had moments of great beauty, but also a couple of awkward moments which made me wonder how much rehearsal time Hill and the Philharmonia Orchestra had had.

This was followed by Sancta Civitas, a work which lasts some thirty minutes, but calls for a large choir and orchestra, semi-chorus, tenor and bass soloists, off-stage boys choir and off-stage trumpets. RVW wrote the work on a generous scale, despite its relatively short length, and it would be ideal for the Albert Hall, surely we should have had it at the Proms. But by placing the off stage singers at the rear of the upper boxes, David Hill managed to achieve the requisite distancing effects without banishing them to the invisibility in the back-stage recesses of the Festival Hall.

Sancta Civitas sets a selection of texts from Revelation, some taken from the King James Bible and others taken from earlier translations. A baritone soloist, the firmly committed Alan Opie, acts as narrator whilst the choir takes up his texts and explores long narrative passages. There is a lot of text (in fact all three choral pieces in the evening had lots of text), and RVW's style is relatively austere, despite the large forces. The piece was written between 1923 and 1925 and first performed in 1926. This was the period when RVW's style was developing the harder, fiercer edge which can be detected in Job (1930) and the 4th Symphony (1931-34). The Heavenly City of Sancta Civitas is a long way from the gorgeousness of the Pilgrim's arrival into Heaven from The Pilgrim's Progress. Hill and his singers and players brought off the tone of the piece perfectly, conveying RVW's complex, polytonal vision in a capable performance. There were a couple of uncertain entries from the choir, a reflection perhaps of the work's sheer unfamiliarity, but the singers were both thrilling in the louder moments and austerely beautiful in the quieter ones. The Bach Choir also supplied the polished chamber choir; Winchester Cathedral Choir and Winchester Quiristers supplied the atmospheric boys choir.

Soloist Alan Opie had a lot to do and he did so with confidence and style. Tenor Andrew Staples had the misfortune to have to sit, silent for the majority of the work; his contribution came only in the closing lines. But Staples sang RVW's quiet closing section in a voice of such beautiful lyricism that it was well worth waiting for.

This was my first encounter with Sancta Civitas in the concert hall, and the Bach Choir under David Hill did not disappoint. The choir has a long history with RVW's music (he was both a singing member and Musical Director) and gave the first London performance of the work in 1926 and did RVW proud again.

After the interval the choir gave us Howells' Sir Patrick Spens, a relatively early work started in 1917. It received its first performance in 1930 and was then withdrawn by Howells. The work was resurrected for the Bach Choir's recent Howells disc. It is a brave confident work, setting the long traditional Scots poem which opens 'The King sits in Dunfermline town/Drinking the blood-red wine'. It is a grisly tale of a famous sea captain whose ship is wrecked. The choir relished the dramatic narrative opportunities that Howells gave them, and Hill paced the work well so that it kept moving without ever seeming to rush; the poem, after all, has 26 verses to get through.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' A Birthday Card for Prince Charles followed. This is a charming piece, written for strings only. It was intended for the Sanday Fiddle Club on Orkney though the programme gave no explanation as to why the Philharmonia Orchestra were premièring it. Maxwell Davies used traditional Scots forms, but with his own tunes. The result is fun and funny, but with some typical tricky moments, particularly with cross rhythms.

Zsolt-Tihameer Visontay (joint Concert Master of the Philharmonia Orchestra) then gave a poised account of RVW's The Lark Ascending, followed by the choir and orchestra's rousing performance of Howells' Te Deum. Howells wrote his Te Deum and Jubilate (canticles for Matins) for the Collegium Regale service in 1944, following them with the canticles for Evensong and Holy Communion Service. The original version, for choir and organ, was premièred by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge. In the late 1970s, Howells transposed the piece up a semi-tone, added a short introduction, and orchestrated it for performance by the Leith Hill Festival.

The choral part mainly alternates unison singing with four-part homophony, any counterpoint and moving parts being in the accompaniment only. When performed by a large choir and orchestra this gave the work an upbeat sort of feel which lacked the subtlety of some of Howells other vocal writing. But it certainly made a rousing conclusion to the concert.

Copyright © 2 December 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK


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