Great Britain: Five centuries of British music
Mark Stamper, Artistic Director
Heather Easting, organ and piano
St Andrew’s on the Terrace,
Saturday, 29 May 2021
This concert was billed as ‘five centuries of British music’, but in truth it was two and a half centuries plus Tallis, or even one and a half centuries plus Handel and Tallis. Nonetheless, it was a stylish concert.
Inspirare is a small choir (18 voices) of mostly soloists. Founded by Mark Stamper five years ago, it gave its first concert on 4 September 2016. Known for its polish, the choir did not disappoint.
The concert began with a work for organ, Herbert Howells’ Rhapsody No 1 in D flat major, played with consummate style by Heather Easting. This showed off the recently refurbished organ nicely, and set the style for the programme to follow.
As was appropriate for a concert featuring so much organ music, the choir sang from the gallery, and the audience was arranged on the usual seating in the body of the church, but facing backwards. This arrangement worked beautifully, ensuring that there were no awkward timing delays between choir and organ. The only downside was that some of the singers were not visible, and the usual rapport between choir and audience was missing. But the sonic advantages made up for that. Placing the choir high in the church, close to the ceiling, meant that the sound was focused and clean, exactly as the music required, rather than becoming muddied between the front of the church and the back wall.
Britten’s Jubilate Deo – what an ohrwurm! – demonstrated a very nice balance between organ and choir, and showed off the fresh, young sound of the choir. They sounded like much Viva Voce in the early years: half the size, but with the same freshness and flexibility, precise tuning, and clear diction.
Thomas Tallis’s slender four-part motet, If Ye Love Me, showed a lovely sustained legato, clean and crisp at the ends of phrases. If it had any fault it was a lack of emotion. The overall effect was beautiful but not fervent, straightforwardly sung as though it was simply a piece of music rather than a musical prayer.
The Tallis was followed by Handel’s monumental Let thy Hand be Strengthened. Like a Ferrari on the open road, the choir responded to Mark Stamper with a full-throated roar, sounding like three times the number of voices. They gave a full Handelian sound, yet were precise in the runs; never florid, always stylish, with superb organ support (standing in for the whole orchestra). Heather Easting’s registrations were delicious, especially in ‘Let Justice and Judgement’, where the pedal line must not overpower the delicate upper register. The altos and basses came in with a smooth legato, and the silvery soprano entry demonstrated perfect balance.
If the concert had finished at that point, I would have gone home satisfied, but the best was still to come. Britten’s Festival Te Deum followed. The work was written in 1944 for the centenary of St Mark’s Church, Swindon, and first performed in 1945. There was a finely graduated crescendo held against the full organ, and the subito piano entry was magical. The tenors sounded young and fresh. The athletic middle section is fast, with a wide tessitura, followed by some jolly vehement singing. The treble solo part was taken by Simon Hernyak, one of the altos. The highest notes were just a fraction too high for her, but Stamper’s choice of an alto soloist was exactly right, because the Inspirare sopranos have a fuller sound than the English cathedral treble.
Staying cheerful, Parry’s I was Glad succeeded Britten. It was written for a coronation and has a big organ introduction. The choir that entered sounded more like Westminster Abbey than a chamber choir. Majestic singing. At times I wondered whether the choir could hold its own against the organ, but they did, with some glorious soprano top notes. Lovely vocal technique throughout.
And then a change of pace. Heather Easting came downstairs to play the piano for the setting of In Flanders Fields by Welsh composer Paul Mealor. This was the highlight of the concert for me. A perfect marriage of music and text, written with directness and simplicity. Inspirare did a splendid job, from the first male entry, tenors joined by the basses singing lightly in the upper part of the voice, and then a ravishing bell-like sound from the sopranos. Wikipedia says that Mealor is ‘considered one of the world’s most performed living composers’, and I understand why. More Mealor, please!
After the Mealor, some Stanford. And I Saw another Angel featured tenor James Asquith as soloist, with a lovely light Evangelist sound, and powerful singing by the women in particular.
This was succeeded by an organ piece by Vaughan Williams, Rhosymedre, placed here to give the choir a short breather, since there was no interval. And straight on into a melodious work by the contemporary Scottish composer James Macmillan, A New Song. There were pretty fluttering and trilling figures in the organ part, with a thicker harmonic texture once the choir entered, with sopranos dominant. The sopranos sang trills against a sustained bass pedal line; then the tenors imitated the effect against the organ’s pedal notes. The structure is strophic, but the changes of texture made it thrilling. The lower soprano sound, once more with that Viva Voce freshness, was beautiful. Like the Mealor, this is a work that deserves to be performed widely.
David Bednall is a prolific young contemporary Brit who has been educated in the English Cathedral tradition and has written many works for church choirs. His 8-part Easter Alleluia featured bass soloist Joe Haddow, who made a gorgeous sound. Bednall cites his love of ‘late twentieth century music’ as an influence on his composition, but though the tonality in this work was complex, the effect was riveting, with lively compound rhythms and some punishingly high soprano notes.
Jonathan Willcocks’ Lacrymosa set a movement from the Requiem Mass text (‘Lacrimosa dies illa’) and did it full justice, with Messiaen-like tonality, lovely text-painting, and a beautiful Pie Jesu for tenors and sopranos. Inspirare did the work full justice.
The last work was by the Welsh Anglican composer Willian Mathias (who taught Paul Mealor), Let the People Praise Thee (Op. 87). Written for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, it started with fanfares from organ and choir and built to a huge crescendo.
And that was it. A most stylish concert of interesting works, well chosen, and presented with exquisite attention to detail. Inspirare’s next concert will be on 4 September in St Teresa’s Church, Karori. Put it in your diary now.