A few words of advice to choirs hiring churches for concerts might be given after the Holst Singers’ ‘Muscular to Mystical’ on Thursday evening: choose the church (and its organ) to suit the repertoire. An organ-accompanied programme of early-20th-century choral music sung by a 50-voice choir requires a building big enough to let the sound of the choir bloom, and an organ near to them that can provide the solid wall of 19th-century sound that works of the type first performed in big cathedrals demand. Alas, St Peter’s Eaton Square – while beautifully bijou after its 1990s rebuild, replete with a fine west-end-situated baroque-voiced instrument – provided neither of these, to the detriment of the listening experience. All this was a great pity, as the Holst Singers, as usual, were on excellent vocal form, and a more appropriate setting would have enhanced the performance considerably.
Stephen Layton’s range of physically expressive techniques for directing the ensemble was highly effective (although he might like to consider using a baton; a plastic propelling pencil is no substitute), and, unsurprisingly, the ‘mystical’ (rather than the organ-accompanied ‘muscular’) pieces fared best of all. Holst’s The Evening Watch and Nunc Dimittis both allowed the choir to demonstrate their complete control of dynamic, blend and ensemble work, particularly in the clustered harmonies that both pieces employ, and in the precisely graduated crescendo at the end of the former work.
Holst’s third group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda were given a first-rate account by the sopranos and altos (accompanied with sensitivity by the harpist Sally Pryce). Again, blend, balance and dynamic were to the fore in the articulation of the long, slow lines of ‘Hymn to the Dawn’ and ‘Hymn to Vena’, and accuracy and ensemble were spot on for the busy, tricky, runs and contrapuntal passages of ‘Hymn to the Waters’ and ‘Hymn of the Travellers’, where Holst’s characteristic odd-numbered time signatures present challenges.
Vaughan Williams’ Valiant for Truth is probably not one of his greater choral works, and rarely gets a performance; it consists largely of a homophonic narrative, interrupted by short choral interventions. The choir provided some pleasingly triumphant effects for the rhythmic ‘and all the trumpets sounded’ passage towards the close, but it is principally Bunyan’s mystical text (from The Pilgrim’s Progress) that provides the piece with any interest.
There is little to say about the performance of the first movement of Elgar’s Organ Sonata by Gregory Drott. It was given a competent rendering, but on an instrument that simply didn’t suit it – a solo work for the harp would have made for a more enjoyable non-choral interlude.
In Elgar’s Give unto the Lord, Great is the Lord and Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens the choir tackled the dynamic contrasts required for the drama of these works with verve, augmenting this with some nicely judged changes in tone: the keening of ‘a woman in travail’ (in Great is the Lord) manifested itself in the suitably thin tone of the sopranos and altos, and the ‘jarred against nature’s chime’ passage in the Parry was given appropriately sinister overtones. There was a slight tendency for the tenors to overblow in places, and Elgar’s sudden crescendo/diminuendo moments might have been made more of, but the choral performance was generally excellent. Sadly, it couldn’t compensate for the instrumental opening of the Parry, which should summon the brazen blare of Empire (its original scoring included trombones, trumpets and horns), but which, in this performance, was reduced to a diffuse waft of sound, underscored with comic flatulence.