English sacred and secular song, choral and organ music at Saint Paul’s Cathedral

Choir of Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, conducted by Michael Stewart, with Thomas Gaynor (organ), Jared Holt (baritone) and soloists from the choir

Music of twentieth-century English sacred choral and secular solo music

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 17 August 2013, 7pm

These are unconventional times; before the music could commence, Michael Stewart, Director of Music at the Cathedral, had to give the audience instruction on what to do in an earthquake, while reassuring us about the strength of the building.  The back page of the programme had printed details about such procedures.

Following this, Stewart gave brief but informative and humorous spoken introductions to the items.

Entry to the concert was by donation, to support the purchase of a Steinway piano from the former TVNZ studios at Avalon.  Although not titled on the programme, it was a concert of English sacred choral and secular solo twentieth century music.

In honour of the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the first three items were his Hymn to St. Peter, Hymn to the Virgin and Hymn to St. Columba.  The first began with loud brass tones from the organ, introducing a slow processional-style hymn.  It incorporated similar introductions to each verse.  This was quite taxing music for choir and organist.  Phoebe Sparrow sang magnificently in the solo passages, to a delightful quiet organ accompaniment.

Hymn to the Virgin is better known than the other two.  This piece was sung unaccompanied, with an antiphonal quartet placed in a balcony above the north transept.  All the singers produced great clarity of notes and words.  A louder section of the music introduced some harsh tone from the men occasionally, but otherwise it was a fine performance.

Hymn to St Columba included an organ part, described by Stewart as ‘fiendishly difficult’, but played with no apparent problems by Thomas Gaynor. This was a gorgeous piece.

Jared Holt sang two of Roger Quilter’s lovely songs: ‘Go, lovely rose’ (words by Edmund Waller), and ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ (words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson).  Quilter was a master at setting English poetry; I always think it a shame when, as in this case, the poets are not credited in the printed programmes.  Lieder and song could not exist without the marriage of words and music.  These songs suited Jared Holt’s voice very well, and his performance both vocally and in interpretation he was admirable.

I could not say the same about the piano.  Although sitting near the front, and thus not catching too much of what has been described as the ‘bathroom echo’ in the Cathedral, I found the sound soon became an undefined mush when it left the instrument, i.e. there was a lack of definition, whereas my companion found the tone ‘tinny’.  This was not the fault of the pianist (Michael Stewart) nor, presumably, the instrument, but in the first case, caused by the vast and high space, and the second, by the concrete floor under the instrument.  Perhaps it would be better to keep use of the sustaining pedal to a strict minimum.

One of two major choral works on the programme by Ralph Vaughan Williams, his Mass in G minor, written in 1921 for double choir and dedicated to Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide singers, was unaccompanied. The influence of Tudor music, was noticeable, especially echoes of William Byrd’s masses.

The performance featured beautiful sustained phrases, refined tone and excellent intonation. There were rich harmonies, especially in the Gloria and a quartet of solo voices interspersed the passages for the full choir of around 30 voices here and in later movements.  The soprano and tenor were strong and clear.  The counterpoint section was bright, lively and intricate.

The Credo was full of delicious contrasts.  The choir’s balance was excellent, especially in the quieter passages.  Vaughan Williams’s word-setting was amazingly varied.  The quartet of soloists again made a significant contribution, and the Amen at the end contained elaborate writing, triumphant in mood.

The Sanctus was perhaps the most contemporary (twentieth century) sounding of  the whole work, with interesting harmonies – always resolved.  Significant dynamic variation was incorporated.  A soprano solo introduced the Benedictus where the voices blended beautifully.  The Agnes Dei was another wonderfully varied movement, sung with assurance, accuracy and affecting attention to tone, clarity of diction and gradations of dynamics.

It was a memorable and superb performance of supremely exquisite English church music.

Following the interval was James MacMillan’s ‘A new song’, a choral piece with organ accompaniment.  This exhibited delicacy and robustness by turns.  And there were some tricky turns for the singers, accompanied by pianissimo chords from the organ, which were followed up by loud ones at the end.  However, I did not find the piece very interesting.

Next we heard the one piece on the programme that was written just before the twentieth century (1895), Elgar’s Andante espressivo (Organ Sonata in G major, Op.28), played by Thomas Gaynor.  This I found rather ho-hum – not the playing, nor the choice of tone colours, but the music, which was rather improvisatory in style and did not seem to have much to say.  It became grand and flashy, but with attractive registrations. Elgar wrote very little other organ music, most of it unpublished; perhaps there was nothing in English organ music of the twentieth century with a greater claim to be included in the programme.

Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs are great favourites of mine.  A large part of their beauty stems from the poems of George Herbert (1593-1632, again not credited). I have always marvelled at the incomparable language used by this remarkable poet.  The composer’s highly sensitive settings, using a modal opening to several of them, are complemented by magical accompaniments, here, the organ substituting for the original setting for orchestra..

I thought that the second song, ‘I got me flowers’ needed a little more variation of tone and dynamics from the soloist, Jared Holt.  The wordless choir part was ethereal, followed by a strong unison ending.
‘Love bade me welcome’ was for soloist and organ only.  Here, there was more subtlety, and a good range of registrations on the organ.  Words were very clear, and the singer’s tone was warm and earnest.  A wordless coda from the choir accompanied the soloist’s final words.  A high pianissimo ending from the organ was marvellously euphoric.

The setting of ‘The Call’ (Come my way, my truth, my life – quoting words from the New Testament) featured modal tonality.  The final, big choral item, ‘Antiphon’ (Let all the world in every corner sing) is
often performed separately from the rest of the cycle.  Its demanding organ part is like triumphant bells.  It is grand and joyous.

Michael Stewart elicits from his choir an energetic sound, with notable flexibility, especially in its superb dynamic range. Most of the singers looked committed and involved in the music, but a few looked completely bland.  Nevertheless, well done, all – not least young organist Thomas Gaynor, home on a break from his studies in the USA.


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