To lose oneself in both London performances of Stanford’s Beati quorum via in a week is neither unfortunate nor careless, and the second presentation of this exquisite choral gem, by the Holst Singers on Friday night was every bit as honed, lovely and enjoyable to listen to as the earlier rendition by The Choir of the Age of Enlightenment – leading to an interesting few minutes’ consideration of the cigarette-paper of difference between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ choirs at this level of performance.
The Holsts were giving the opening concert in the Vaughan Williams and Friends Festival at St John’s this weekend, and it began with a stirring and faultless performance of Parry’s I was glad, providing a reminder that the organ at St John’s needs to be heard more often, as it is a beautifully voiced monster which fills the building with glorious sound – heard again later in the concert at the end of Lord, thou has been our refuge, an equally joyous account (with the addition of a soaring trumpet) of Vaughan Williams’ festival setting of Psalm 90.
Parry and Stanford both taught Ralph Vaughan Williams (albeit that his relationship with the latter was stormy, Stanford despising Vaughan Williams’s ‘modern’ sensibilities), and a fellow-student at The Royal College of Music was Gustav Holst, whose output was represented at the concert by his short Latin setting of the Nunc Dimittis – which was given a sensitive treatment, the deftly handled imitative passages between upper and lower voices eventually leading to a radiant Amen.
Vaughan Williams subsequently became a teacher at The Royal College and one of his pupils was William Lloyd Webber, grandfather, as it were, of Phantom and Joseph. Lloyd Webber père’s works are not often performed, and it was a rare treat to hear the Gloria from his Missa Sancta Mariae Magdalenae, which received an excellent performance – the choir bringing out the passages of light and shade in the piece, and clearly enjoying the tuneful opening of the Quoniam section. Given that the concert was relatively short, it was perhaps a pity that they didn’t consider performing the whole Mass – it provided, though, a taster for further listening.
Hebert Howells, another giant of the English Pastoral school, was an admirer and friend of Vaughan Williams, and his Requiem featured as the main work in the first half. It is a tender piece which the composer eventually expanded into his larger, orchestrated Hymnus Paradisi, but the original vignette is full of Howells’ trademark English romanticism – sonorous complex chords overlaid with wandering melodies. The Holsts gave it a first-rate performance, bringing out perfectly the understated longing of the two psalm movements, and responding adroitly to the frequent changes in dynamic and tempo (the build to the note cluster on et lux perpetua in Requiem I was very special indeed).
Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor – his homage to the English Renaissance polyphonists – was the sole work in the second half, and, again, the choir delivered an extremely professional account, turning what is essentially a liturgical work into an engaging concert piece. There was perhaps a tendency for the sopranos to be a little shrill at times, and the quartet/full choir passages in the Credo were maybe not as tight as they could have been, but these were more than made up for by splendid moments elsewhere: the magical dying note at the end of the Kyrie; the rich Tallis-Fantasia opening of the Gloria and the well handled echo effects of Osanna in the Benedictus.