Reflection image

English Masses, Motets and Anthems

Saturday 6 March 2010 7:30pm
Winchester Cathedral Quire
directed by Charles Stewart

Tickets £17.50 (concessions £14.50, children aged 16 and under £5)

Our Spring concert consisted of a selection of the finest pieces of English sacred music - masses by Byrd and Vaughan WIlliams, extended anthems by Walton and Finzi, and a series of motets by Parry.

William Byrd - Mass for 4 voices
Hubert Parry - Songs of Farewell
Gerald Finzi - Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Mass in G
WIlliam Walton - The Twelve

Virtuosic Reflection

Review by Bruce Randall

At first sight, the mysteriously entitled ‘Reflection’ concert from Southern Voices was an ‘alphabet soup’ of choral works by English composers from B to W. But that is to underestimate the subtlety of this choir’s approach to concert programming. The sequence of challenging 20th-century choral masterpieces was prefaced by a luminous performance of the simple Mass for Four Voices by William Byrd. Tudor polyphony, originally intended for small-scale liturgical use, is not obvious repertoire for a large chamber choir. But in the relatively intimate quire of Winchester Cathedral this rather austere music sounded wonderful, with purity of tone and a directness enriched by the larger distant acoustic.

Next came Parry’s Songs of Farewell which dwell on the transitory nature of human existence and the hope of a continuing life in another world. The six motets start with the well known 'My soul, there is a country' and increase in difficulty to 'Lord, let me know mine end', written when Parry knew that his own end was near. Coupled with the gorgeous Parry harmonies, Southern Voices’ clear articulation, good balance and well-judged tempi made this a stylish performance. Intonation was a little challenged in the more chromatic sections of the fifth motet, ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’, but held up well in all the others.

Gerald Finzi’s Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice sets 17th century poems about the Eucharist by Richard Crashaw in an extended anthem which is deeply felt and rich in dynamic contrast. The choir delivered a sensitive performance marred only by some untidy consonants. The organ accompaniment can make or break a performance of this piece and Simon Bell did not disappoint, playing ‘at home’ with total command of the instrument. Simon Bell also contributed two organ solos by Herbert Howells – Flourish for a Bidding and Master Tallis’s Testament (more echoes of Tudor England) which fitted seamlessly into the sequence as the singers moved from high altar to choir stalls.

The Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor opened the second half, very much a 20th century take on the polyphonic masses of the 16th century (hence the Byrd earlier). Scored for unaccompanied double choir and four soloists the music is richly harmonised and comfortingly pastoral. Conductor Charles Stewart extracted a well-nuanced performance from Southern Voices, with impressive legato singing throughout. As with all the pieces here, solo parts were provided from within the choir. A few nervous diaphragms were apparent but this approach gave a more coherent result than importing professional soloists.

A professional organist was however a pre-requisite for the final item, William Walton’s The Twelve. Auden’s poem in praise of the twelve apostles was written in 1964 and is typically jagged and colourful with its ambitious scale, rhythm and articulation.

The work initially chronicles the humble beginnings of the apostles' ministry, the spread of their message, the conversion of masses, and martyrdom. Then there’s a penitential poem whose quiet, fragile tones Walton entrusts to soprano soloists in tandem – very well delivered. The last section celebrates the Apostles’ legacy, initially given to men's voices which took a while to settle. Auden's final lines are given a fugal texture which held together well before the choir is launched into a triumphant ‘let us praise them all with a merry noise.’ Indeed it was, with the choir just managing to avoid organ domination. This was a thrilling conclusion to a very full programme of virtuosic church music.
Bruce Randall