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Remembrances and Reflections - Music for the season of Remembrance: Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Clio Gould (violin), John Birch (organ), Choir of London, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, John Rutter, St Paul's Cathedral 12.11.2009 (BBr)

William Byrd: Justorum animae
Henry Balfour Gardiner: Evening Hymn
George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow
Ralph Vaughan Williams:
The Lark Ascending
Giles Swayne: The Dug Out (2007)
Benjamin Britten: Lord Melbourne (from Suite on English Folk Tunes: A Time There Was, op.90
C V Stanford: I heard a voice from heaven
Samuel Barber: Adagio for strings, op.11
John Tavener: An
Rutter: Requiem

A programme of basically meditative music, given the day after Armistice Day is most welcome, for in our age of the sound bite culture people forget that mourning is not a flash–in–the–pan kind of thing, but something which lasts, and lingers. As such requires something more tangible than the two minute pop ditty which too many believe to be the Holy Grail of music these days.

This programme was the inspiration of John Rutter and while he had put some gems into it, the problem, for me at least, was that the first half was far too long. Without any real incident in any of the pieces (no towering climaxes or similar points of reference) they all ultimately ran into one another quite pleasantly, but I stopped listening and started hearing; a dangerous position for someone reporting an event in which to find themselves. The removal of the Vaughan Williams or the Britten and Barber would have been most welcome. That said, there was much to enjoy, not least because there were some almost forgotten gems here. Balfour Gardiner’s Evening Hymn is a piece of sumptuous Edwardiana and none the worse for that. Likewise, Stanford’s ravishing setting (the word used in the programme book and quite rightly too) of words from the Book of Revelation was…well, a revelation. I’d never heard it before and wondered why, for it is as strong a piece as any that he wrote for choir.

Butterworth’s delightful idyll,
The Banks of Green Willow, brought memories of the unsullied English countryside before things changed for ever, and the composer lost his life at the Somme in 1916, robbing English music of one of its most individual voices. I am still confused as to why Vaughan Williams’s, admittedly lovely, Lark Ascending was included unless it was to compliment the Butterworth, and on reflection I do feel that the whole show would have been better off without it – despite the excellent performance given by Clio Gould. Similarly, the final movement from Britten’s final orchestral work – obviously it was the words of the folk song which made Rutter wish to include it - again felt superfluous to requirements. Barber’s justly famous Adagio has taken on the mantle of a funeral ode and was played at the funerals of both Rainier III, Prince of Monaco and Albert Einstein, was included in the film Platoon and was performed at the Last Night of the 2001 Proms to commemorate the victims of the September 11 (9/11) attacks in the USA. Thus the work has has deep spiritual mourning imposed on it, but I do not believe that this was really the place for it.

Of the rest, Giles Swayne’s setting of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, with a sole trumpeter intoning the Last Post as a prelude and postlude is a fine piece of work, as is Tavener’s An
Exhortation. Each makes use of a distant performer, or distant semi chorus, and both are deeply felt and immediately appealing to an audience.

The major work though was Rutter’s own Requiem. This is a work which addresses death as a long sleep, something not to be feared but to be embraced simply as a part of life. Missing from the work is any thought of fire and brimstone; included is an affirmation of hope. The language is typical of Rutter – and it is deceptively simple too, for there is a depth to this music which the use of its common musical language could make us forget. At the end, with a packed St Paul’s Cathedral in total silence, even a cynic like myself understood the power and strength of feeling at this time of year.

The performances were uniformly excellent, the Choir of London – a small body – filled the Cathedral with good sounds, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra seemed to play with a reverance. Rutter directed very fine perfromances from all concerned, and did it in a most undemonstrative way, but Elin Manahan Thomas, although singing very beautifully and with a restraint which was a delight to hear and also perfect for the music she was given, was too quiet. And if I had trouble hearing her, sitting in the 17th row, I wonder if she could be heard at all at the rear of the Cathedral. Despite my reservations about the length of this show it was a fine exposition and made us all think about the use of music in the healing process. The concert was given in association with Sue Ryder Care and one sincerely hopes that it benefited that excellent organization.

Bob Briggs

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