Review of “Lest We Forget” concert on 27 October

Saturday’s concert by The Renaissance Choir, entitled ‘Lest We Forget’, was given in commemoration of the ending of World War I. The imaginative programming included works by English, French and German composers.

The concert opened with readings by Jennifer Rye and Piers Burton-Page and as the programme unfolded, readings alternated with the musical items. Both readers delivered with an appropriate gravitas, but without over-sentimentality. I particularly enjoyed their interaction in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘My Boy Jack’.

The choir began with Paul Hindemith’s ‘Six Chansons’, with the singers responsive to the shifting moods and varied textures of these short choral settings. The musical idiom (to me an amalgam of Ravel and Poulenc) suited the choir well and provided an effective opening to this concert. I did think that the opening chords of two of the slower numbers weren’t quite together, probably only noticeable because the sense of ensemble is usually so good. André Caplet’s ‘Messe à Trois Voix’ followed. This work can either be sung by male or female voices, but here conductor Peter Gambie cleverly alternated male and female voices and, to great effect, combined both. The tricky exposed unison opening Kyrie for sopranos was well controlled, with its serene mood maintained as the altos entered and the music floated into expressive three-part harmony. Full-throated singing from the men for the Gloria provided a well-judged and striking contrast. The highlight for me here was the all too short Agnus Dei, beautifully performed by Catherine O’Leary, Melissa Wingfield and Jane Jones.

Vaughan Williams’s ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ was the only musical item in the second part of the concert. This extended work was originally conceived for large orchestra and an equally large choir and I was interested to hear how it would fare with fewer than forty singers and, how they would cope with the considerable demands made of them. Only once, in ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ did I wish for a few more voices – even taking into account an issue I will mention later in my review. Because of Vaughan Williams’s associations with Folk Song and the English Pastoral tradition, we can wrongly assume that his music is easy to perform, but it often isn’t. ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ has some very tricky passages indeed. ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’, the work’s second movement is highly chromatic, frequently very dissonant and with much sibilant text to convey. The Renaissance choir rose magnificently to these challenges. Even in the works more reflective moments, for example, the unaccompanied six-part ending to movement three ‘Reconciliation’, the music is exposed and deceptively difficult. It was here, and in other reflective passages, that the advantages of a smaller group of singers really came to the fore – the choir’s sensitive singing and clarity of line serving the composer especially well. The work’s static closing bars were very expressively handled.

I wonder if Vaughan Williams would have been surprised, or even ever expected to hear a performance accompanied by organ. The keyboard reduction certainly isn’t ‘organ friendly’. However, this performance was ably accompanied by organist Mark Dancer, and his choice of registrations was interesting and always apposite. In addition to organ there was also trumpet and percussion. For the most part their inclusion was sensitive and effective – and the ‘when’ they should play was well judged. There were, however, two places where I felt they could have ‘backed off’ a little. The first being the trumpet entry with the choir’s first forte cries of ‘Dona Nobis’ – this was unbelievably loud. Second was the percussion contribution to the climax of ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’. I’m sure that in both instances the instrumental ‘part’ required them to be very loud, but a little more tempering to the size of the choir was needed. Susan Yarnall’s pure-toned voice was ideal for the soprano solo and she sang with apparent ease and musicality. Baritone Andrew Dickinson produced a rounded pleasing sound, sang with clear diction and much sensitivity to the text – notably at ‘For my enemy is dead’.

The choir’s next two performances will be Christmas concerts on the 8th and 15th of December.