Britten's War Requiem
Oxford Town Hall
9 March 2013
Benjamin Britten's War Requiem was written for a large cathedral acoustic. It is scored for full symphony and separate chamber orchestras, a large adult double choir, and a children's group. Britten wanted to convey the indifference of people towards each other, especially in times of war, by placing groups of performers at a distance from each other.
It's difficult, therefore, to imagine a less suitable venue than Oxford Town Hall - the logistics of packing in the 200-plus singers and players must have taxed Music at Oxford's concert managers. As for spacing people out, forget it.
Yet Nicholas Cleobury, conductor of this major event in the Britten in Oxford festival, found plus points in the situation. The cosy proximity of the performers may have robbed the music of some bleakness and conflict, but Cleobury was able to draw out the work's differing textures, orchestral colouring, and rhythmic contrasts all the more clearly.
There was wonderfully edgy interplay between excellent soprano soloist Elizabeth Llewellyn and the chorus in Lacrimosa, for instance, and between the superb brass section and the chorus in Dies Irae. Britten's intermixing of the Latin Mass and Wilfred Owen's First World War poems can sound contrived. Here they flowed seamlessly, naturally into each other. Excellently matched soloists James Oxley and last-minute replacement Mark Stone were able to bring out all the nuances in their texts.
Cleobury's tight control brought out the best in his performers, the Oxford Bach Choir (as always, their crescendos were hair-raising), Christ Church and Worcester College Choristers, and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The performance was - two eminent choral directors in the sell-out audience agreed with me afterwards - a remarkable achievement.
Oxford Bach Choir sing for Britten Centenary
13 Dec 2012
Benjamin Britten was born on the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. If he were still alive, he would have been 99 on November 22. Over the coming year, as his centenary approaches, choirs and orchestras all over the country will be celebrating the work of one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.
Oxford will be part of this, with a year-long Britten in Oxford festival. Concerts, workshops and study days will feature top British performers and scholars, including people who worked with Britten in his lifetime. Britten in Oxford is the brainchild of Nicholas Cleobury, whose many contributions to music in this country include conducting the Oxford Bach Choir and founding the Britten Sinfonia. Nick’s love of Britten’s music goes back to when he was a boy chorister, and sang at the premiere of the War Requiem for the opening of Coventry Cathedral. Britten in Oxford is launched on December 1 with a concert by the Oxford Bach Choir and English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nick, in the Sheldonian Theatre.
Anniversaries of great composers often lead to a reappraisal of their legacy, and the concert includes the world premiere of two psalm settings which Britten wrote when he was a student at the Royal College of Music. These early works clearly signal his musical talent and technique, but were unpublished in his lifetime. The concert also features other lesser known Britten pieces, including an arrangement of the second movement of Mahler’s third symphony, and works by Beethoven, Mahler and Poulenc.
Recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 3.
Brahms Requiem and Rheinberger Mass in E flat
21 June 2012
It may be presumed that those who come to sing to the glory of God do so, too, for the good of their souls. There was about many members of the Oxford Bach Choir on Saturday night an exalted look that proved hugely conducive to my enjoyment of the music they were singing with such rapture.
Principally, this was Brahms’s A German Requiem. This uplifting work, influenced by the deaths of the composer’s mother and his friend Robert Schumann, is judged one of Brahms’s greatest achievements. A historical note in the programme revealed that this was the choir’s 23rd performance of the requiem. Most have been given in conventional style with the use of a full orchestra. On this occasion the choir, under conductor Timothy Byram-Wigfield, sang to the piano accompaniment scored by the composer for two players (here Elizabeth Burgess and Gavin Roberts) at one keyboard.
To the extent that this focused attention primarily on the singers, the move was a sound one in a concert planned to celebrate the human voice. It has to be said, though, that a work justly famous for the lushness of its orchestration — somber strings, glittering harp, relentlessly pounding drums — comes over very differently shorn of this. None could deny, though, the somber beauty of the closing section, with the music ending on a dying fall with the word ‘blessed’ (which we were). On the way there was a powerful performance in the third movement by baritone Ben McAteer, trading words of the Psalmist with the choir, while soprano Ana-Maria Rincon produced a vocal line in the moving fifth section as glittering as the diamonds at her throat.
The choir’s programme also featured Rheinberger’s unaccompanied Mass in E flat major for double choir and Schubert’s Rondo in A, D.951, fizzily interpreted by the night’s two pianists.
Mozart Requiem and Haydn Theresienmesse
15 Mar 2012
Haydn’s Theresienmesse lags behind the Nelson in frequency of performance, which is a shame, because its rich texturing, delicious harmonies, infectious melodies and unerring ability to surprise make it a delightful and stirring work, frequently dramatic and bristling with energy, but also capable of sublime calm.
On Saturday, the Oxford Bach Choir tackled the piece with evident relish, savouring the choruses as a wine connoisseur might a particularly fine vintage port. Conductor Nicholas Cleobury was firmly in control, expressive as always in the way he communicated with the choir, drawing from them some lush sounds and well-observed dynamics.
Occasionally, I felt, the choir’s diction suffered during some of the more dramatic moments, and the surprisingly boisterous Agnes Dei sounded just a little too strident. But mostly this was an impressive and vibrant performance, delivered powerfully and with a great sense of commitment, well supported by some polished and meticulous playing from the London Mozart Players.
Among a particularly fine quartet of soloists, soprano Anna Devin — a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House — shone with some bright and resonant singing that soared gracefully and effortlessly. Mezzo Carolyn Dobbin, tenor James Oxley and bass Giles Underwood gave strong contributions, and all four soloists blended well, with the gloriously operatic finale to the Credo, a particular joy to hear.
Mozart’s more familiar Requiem could have seemed an anti-climax by comparison, but its familiarity was in itself a joy, every note a rediscovered treasure. The sublime Lacrimosa was, as always, my favourite moment, but there was plenty to savour here, from the hauntingly arresting Introitus to the dramatic Dies Irae and hearty Rex tremendae. Once again, the choir impressed with its unwavering attention to tone and dynamics, while the soloists again delivered some quality performances, the magnificent Tuba mirum being particularly memorable. The final Communio brought an exceptionally exciting and compelling performance to a satisfying conclusion.