This week has hardly been short of Remembrance events of one stripe or another in the centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War. Consequently, the challenge of presenting something different and original could be a daunting one. It was, however, one which the Arcadian Singers, under their Musical Director Jacob Ewens, rose to spectacularly in last night’s concert. The reflective nature of such a concert was wholeheartedly embraced by the performers, but never short of emotion among the reverence shown to the memory of the War.
Herbert Howells’s Requiem, composed in 1932 but unpublished until around fifty years later, provided the concert’s opening. This work, intimately tied up with the death of his son, was beautifully presented from the outset, Howells’s lush harmonies finely tuned and well-controlled with some admirable low D’s from the bass line. With the texts, in English and sung beautifully clearly, drawing on both the Anglican and Catholic funeral rites, the intimacy of the circumstances of its composition was well balanced with the wider significance of the concert’s theme, though a little more in the way of dynamic contrast would not have gone amiss. The numerous solo moments, performed by members of the choir, were well sung, and especially those at the beginning of the second movement and at the end of the last – here, the soprano soloist soared over the rest of the choir, providing the pinnacle at the piece’s conclusion where the hope of resurrection, taken from the Revelation to John, cuts through the despair of death and provides a radiant, reassuring D major conclusion. The lengthy silence at the end said as much as needed to be said.
Jonathan Harvey’s Remember, O Lord had a job to live up to the previous item in the concert, and although it came off well, a few intonation issues at the start meant that it perhaps fell a little short of the standard of the Howells. After this came the first of the three world premieres of the evening, Laurence Armstrong-Hughes’s Severn and Somme, musical settings of six poems by Ivor Gurney. It is difficult to say too much about this piece mainly because the balance between harp, oboe, and voice meant that the words were a little more difficult to comprehend, and perhaps better suited to a smaller space than Keble Chapel. The instrumentalists here did a commendable job with the piece, but on looking back at the texts, the opposition of the title was perhaps not exploited to its full potential. That said, the desolation of the third song, describing the memories of a lost loved one, was beautifully executed, and provided a foil to the bucolic landscape of the other movements.
The indubitable highlight of the first half was David Allen’s setting of In Flanders Fields, which tapped into something of the same sound world as the Howells previously. The harmonies were again well controlled and tight, and when combined with the clarity of the text coming through, made for a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of the poem. To take such a familiar piece of writing at this time of year is a bold move, but the piece and its presentation left their mark truly enough – “we are the dead…” raised actual goosebumps even in the warmth of the Chapel, and another long silence, a rush of applause, and the unmistakable sound of people humming the primary motif of the piece made it a perfect end to the first half, establishing it as one of the highlights of the concert.
After the interval, a nod across to Germany, in the form of Brahms’s Geistliches Lied, brought out the organ for the first time in the concert. The typically luscious harmonies were fully exploited, the German excellently and clearly pronounced, and the final “Amen” concluding the piece allowed it to take its place fully within the programme, managing both to avoid sounding tokenistic and provide a contrast with the otherwise exclusively British repertoire. The final premiere of the evening was Laurence Armstrong Hughes’s English Requiem, which placed Psalm texts (here 46, 86, 27, and 90) next to some perhaps lesser-known War poems. All the instrumentalists were involved at various points, as well as excellent soloists, again taken from the choir, and the variety of combinations and balance were well managed this time. Of particular note was the second movement, a duet for alto and oboe setting Ivor Gurney’s poem Mist on Meadows – the resounding opinion of the audience appeared in a thoroughly un-British round of applause which, for all that it might have disturbed the ‘flow’ of the concert, was utterly deserved after a desolately beautiful depiction of Ypres. Emotional range was again played out to its fullest extent, the optimism and fervent hope of Psalm 27 in the fifth movement captured in the organ accompaniment before sinking into the devastatingly beautiful end. The sixth movement, split into two, were both excellently sung by the soloists, and particularly the first, singing an unaccompanied setting of When the long trek is over by Alec Candole. This took on the feel of a folk song, which in itself made the personal costs of the War come to the fore, before the relative optimism of the next song looking to a brighter future when it was all over. The final movement, like the Howells capturing the optimism and hope of resurrection, was a rousing finish to the piece before the tender final blessing which brought the mood of reflection back to the proceedings.
When I saw there was to be an Act of Remembrance in the concert itself, I was initially concerned that it would feel too forced. This was utterly unfounded as the choir proceeded to the back of the Chapel, in the dark and in silence, to sing George Guest’s For the Fallen. The reverence of the entire concert was encapsulated in this performance, and although the mood was distinctly more subdued than might be expected of a concert performance, the respectful silence of the audience on the way out spoke for itself. I am still humming that motif from In Flanders Fields, and still humbled by the range of emotion presented last night in such a beautifully controlled set of repertoire. It could have been all about the choir, but it became something much larger than that, ensuring, as if it needed restating, that We Will Remember Them.
C. E. Queripel
For more information about the Arcadian Singers or to view their upcoming events, please visit their website.