Happy Christmas… with César Franck

In this year’s final post from Arcana, we would like to take the chance to wish you a very Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year – in the company of anniversary composer César Franck. His choral favourite Panis Angelicus is ideal for the season, especially in this version from the King’s College Choir Cambridge:

So, too, is the majestic Pièce Héroïque, played here in a vintage recording by the organist-composer Marcel Dupré:

Thank you so much for being our readers this year, and we look forward to bringing you all sorts of musical goodness in 2023!

Ben Hogwood, editor

From closed doors to a heavenly host: The completion of a Mahler symphony cycle

by John Earls pictures (c) Andy Paradise

Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for Arcana FM on ‘Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19’. I concluded by saying that I wouldn’t get to see a performance of this epic ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and complete my personal Mahler live symphony cycle – any time soon, but that when I did it would have a very particular significance.

I certainly didn’t know that the performance would be by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the Royal Albert Hall on a Sunday afternoon in late October 2022, a concert that was itself rescheduled due to the pandemic.

And what a performance it was. The Royal Albert Hall could be said to be purpose built for this work, accommodating not just an expanded orchestra (including seven off-stage brass players in the gods) but three choirs, two boys’ choirs, eight soloists and a huge concert organ (the Royal Albert Hall’s was once the largest instrument in the world).

You get the full blast of the organ from the off with the tumultuous opening of Part 1’s Veni Creator Spiritus. It’s quite a ride from there on in, and Petrenko and the RPO handled it superbly all the way through to the powerful finale of Part 2’s setting of the end of Goethe’s Faust. This was not just about the big sections, the delicate moments were deftly done too.

But this work is really all about the singing, and the assembled choirs of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Choruses and City of London Choir, as well as the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School were magnificent.

And it wasn’t just the massed voices, as glorious as they were. The soloists – and let’s name them (above): Sarah Wegener (Magna Peccatrix), Jacquelyn Wagner (Gretchen), Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa), Jennifer Johnston (Mulier Samaritana), Claudia Huckle (Mary of Egypt), Vincent Wolfsteiner (Doctor Marianus), Benedict Nelson (Pater Ecstaticus) and James Platt (Pater Profundus) – were excellent too.

I made the point in my earlier piece that there is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. I think the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the end was testimony to this.

Mahler’s Eighth is definitely one of those pieces that you need to see performed live. I’m so glad that I finally did.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

In Memoriam Queen Elizabeth II

As a tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, here is a small part of the deeply meaningful music from her funeral service at Westminster Abbey this morning, which also included new works from Sir James MacMillan and the Master of the King’s Music Judith Weir.

Two English works, by Sir Hubert Parry and Vaughan Williams, are included below. My Soul There Is A Country is the first of six Songs Of Farewell by Parry, for unaccompanied choir, written towards the end of the First World War.

O taste and see is a short motet that Vaughan Williams completed in 1953 for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It is a short and beautiful piece:

On Record – BBC Welsh Chorus & Orchestra / Bryden Thomson & Sir Charles Groves – Daniel Jones: Symphonies 12 & 13 (Lyrita)

Daniel Jones
Symphony no.12 (1985)a
Symphony no.13 ‘Symphony in memory of John Fussell (1992)b
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life (1987)c

Maldwyn Davies (tenor) (c), BBC Welsh Chorus (c, BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra (a) and (c) / Bryden Thomson (a), Sir Charles Groves (c); BBC National Orchestra of Wales (b) / Tecwyn Evans (b)

Lyrita SRCD391 [65’35”] English text included
Dates: (a) – BBC studio recording 22 March 1990; (b) – BBC concert broadcast 23 January 2017; (c) – BBC broadcast from Swansea Festival, 10 October 1987

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Lyrita completes its coverage of symphonies by Daniel Jones (1912-1993) with this coupling of his final two such works, alongside the premiere performance of his last cantata, heard in readings by artists who identified closely with the composer’s music throughout their careers.

What’s the music like?

It was only midway through this cycle that Jones realized he could start a symphony on each note of the chromatic scale. The Twelfth Symphony thus completes this process – its overall structure being among the composer’s most concentrated. At barely six minutes, the opening movement seems relatively expansive with the tensile sonata-form of its Agitato bookended by affecting Tranquillo passages. There follows a rumbustious Giocoso the more potent for its brevity, a Serioso such as might almost be thought a ‘song without words’ with its lyrical understatement, then a Risoluto which extends just long enough to round off the whole work by effecting an oblique return to its initial bars. Four decades on from his first so-designated piece and Jones can be said to have brought his symphonic cycle decisively to its conclusion.

That, however, was by no means the end of the story: the death, in 1990, of Jones’s friend the organist and administrator John Fussell prompted a Thirteenth Symphony as proved to be his last completed work (an Eighth String Quartet being realized by Malcolm Binney and the late Giles Easterbrook). Relatively expansive next to those later such pieces, with some especially imaginative writing for percussion (allocated to no less than seven players), this unfolds from the restless and eventful Solenne – at almost 10 minutes a worthy ‘memorial’ in itself – via an animated and nonchalant Capriccioso then a Lento whose plangent woodwind writing makes it among his most searching slow movements, to a finale whose Agitato-Tranquillo trajectory is pursued twice as this intensifies inexorably towards an ending as powerful as it is eloquent.

Coming between the two symphonies, Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life is the last of Jones’s four cantatas and again has recourse to metaphysical poetry – in this instance George Herbert, the seven short movements being arranged as to chart the spiritual progress of the author (by extension, that of John Aeron-Thomas – founder-member of the Swansea Festival, for whom this is a memorial). Intersected with a fervent orchestral Fantasia, the six choruses traverse contrasted and even conflicted emotions before attaining an unforced affirmation at the close.

Does it all work?

It does. As has previously been noted in these reviews, Jones was not a composer who sought or attracted easy plaudits – opting for an idiom whose methodical evolution is consistent and absorbing. The performances reflect this thinking, Sir Charles Groves and Bryden Thomson both focussed on capturing the essence of works whose integrity is abetted by deftness and no little humour. Tecwyn Evans’s conducting suggests he, too, is primarily concerned with projecting the spirit of this music. Nor does Maldwyn Davies’s contribution leave anything to be desired.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The broadcasts have been expertly remastered (No. 13 understandably sounding the best), with Paul Conway contributing detailed and insightful annotations. Job done by Lyrita, which will now hopefully complete a similar intégrale of the symphonies by Alun Hoddinott.

For further information and purchasing options, visit the Lyrita website For more information on Daniel Jones, click here

On record – State Choir LATVIJA / Māris Sirmais – Sempiternam: Choral music by Rhona Clarke (Métier)

rhona-clarke

Rhona Clarke
O Vis Aeternitatis (2020)
Two Marian Anthems (2007)
Three Carols on Medieval Texts (2014)
Requiem (2020)
The Kiss (2008)
A Song for St Cecilia’s Day (1991)
Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep (2006)
The Old Woman (2016)
Rorate Caeli (1994)

State Choir LATVIJA / Māris Sirmais

Métier MSV28614 [72’36”] English/Latin texts and English translations included

Producer & Engineer Varis Kutmiņš

Recorded July 2021, St John’s Church, Riga

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Métier continues its coverage of Rhona Clarke with this collection of choral works that spans three decades and comprises settings in English and Latin, underlining the stylistic extent of her music as well as its versatility over a range of texts from the Medieval to the present era.

What’s the music like?

Now in her mid-sixties and a prominent figure in the cultural life of her native Dublin, Clarke has amassed a sizable output as takes in almost all the major genres with particular emphasis on chamber, choral and electro-acoustic music. A previous Métier release of her four piano trios from the Fidelio Trio (MSV28561) confirmed her astute handling of what is among the more recalcitrant of chamber media, with such fluency being no less evident in her writing for chorus that can easily be described as inclusive in terms of its subjects and sympathies.

The Latin pieces are almost all religious texts, of which the gradual Rorate Caeli is energetic and intricate with particularly adroit usage of modes. The stylistic trajectory Clarke has taken is evident in the motet O Vis Aeternitatis, whose text by Hildegard of Bingen duly inspires a setting of great contrapuntal skill with arresting interplay of sung and spoken passages. Two Marian Anthems comprise a fluid take on Regina Caeli then a Salve Regina whose fusing of chordal and melismatic elements results in music of translucent beauty. Most extensive is the Requiem whose four sections – a sombre ‘Introit’, an ethereal ‘Lux Aeterna’, an intimate ‘Pie Jesu’ then a soulful ‘In Paradisum’ – focus on the overtly cathartic aspects. Very different is Ave Atque Vale, a setting of Catullus where pathos and indignation are forcefully intertwined.

The English pieces underline Clarke’s literary sympathies even more directly. The relatively early A Song for St Cecilia’s Day evinces an inventive approach to Dryden’s verse in which order is wrested out of (relative) chaos towards a climactic statement around ‘diapason’. Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep sets the poem generally attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye with a melting eloquence as ought to make it a staple of the modern repertoire. After which, the grim humour summoned from the anonymous text The Old Woman is the more pungent. Clarke’s questing harmonic approach helps clarify the sentiment of Ulick O’Connor’s poem The Kiss, but its directness in Three Carols on Medieval Texts yields an engaging humour in Glad and Blithe and Make We Merry to complement the rapt intimacy of Lullay My Liking.

Does it all work?

Almost always thanks to the technical finesse of Clarke’s choral writing and, as previously noted, her ability to ‘home in’ on the expressive essence of the text(s) at hand makes for an emotional empathy which communicates directly to listeners. It helps when the contribution of the State Choir LATVIJA, under Māris Sirmais, is so attuned to this music, not least given its audible command of several by no means idiomatic (to modern ears) English texts. Choral societies looking for new pieces to enrich their repertoire could do worse than to investigate what is on offer here.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The acoustic of St John’s, Riga is ideally suited to the frequent textural density of this music and the composer provides detailed annotations. Hopefully there will be more releases from this source, not least of the electro-acoustic works that form a notable part of her output.

Listen

Buy

For further information on this disc and to view purchase options, visit the Divine Art Records website. To read more about Rhona Clarke, visit this dedicated composer website, and for more on the performers, click on the names of State Choir LATVIJA and Māris Sirmais.