Review, Pascoe, Brahms & Mendelssohn
On Saturday 22nd April, the
Three Spires Singers and Orchestra returned to Truro Cathedral to perform a
concert combining 19th Century classics with a 21st
Century work by Cornwall based composer Russell Pascoe. This is the group’s
second appearance since the end of lockdown and, coming as it does just months
after the première of Graham Fitkin’s commissioned work ‘Humphry Davy, the Age of
Aspiration’, shows their growing commitment both to exciting new work and to
supporting local creative artists.
Russell Pascoe’s Secular Requiem
was originally scheduled for March 2020, before anyone knew that the world was
about to be turned upside down. But, as Lora Wicks (Chair of the Three Spires
Singers) writes in her programme note, the devastation of Covid and the current
invasion of Ukraine makes its theme of coping with bereavement ‘painfully
Conductor Christopher Gray launched
the evening with two - or rather, one and a bit - works by Brahms: the fourth
and fifth movements of A German Requiem followed by his Alto Rhapsody.
These were bookended by Mendelssohn’s Overture to St. Paul and Hör Mein Bitten (Hear My
After a stirring rendition of the
overture, in which the string section admirably showed its prowess at handling
tightly knit contrapuntal lines, the choir were joined by young soprano
Katherine Gregory for the excerpts from Brahms’s Requiem. At nearly
seventy minutes, the full work would have been too long to squeeze into the
first half even if performed alone, and the two movements chosen for the
concert make good sense in their own right. Ms Gregory gave a wonderful account
of the work, her voice ideally suited to the German tongue and mid 19th
century musical language, with strong projection and a full vibrato that always
maintained razor sharp pitch clarity. The choral voices were complemented by
the Truro Cathedral Choir, adding welcome power and tone to the upper lines, if
it did rather leave the basses and tenors struggling to compete.
For the Alto Rhapsody, centre
stage passed to mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers. A much sought after and
seasoned performer, she delivered with fine voice and great carrying power. The
heavy orchestration and dark colours of Brahms’s masterpiece ideally benefit
from a larger string section, but the lighter weight did ensure that the male
choir lines this time came through loud and clear.
Mendelssohn’s Hear My Prayer
brought the first half to an uplifting close, Katherine Gregory once again
leading the choir with the much-loved ‘O For the wings of a dove’.
The second half of the evening was
devoted entirely to Russell Pascoe’s Secular Requiem. This was the third
time the Three Spires Singers had tackled the work, and their familiarity with
it clearly told through their commitment and security in performance. It is sad
to reflect on just how rare it is for contemporary music to receive even a
second performance, and how little opportunity there is therefore for it ever
to get beyond a superficial note-bashing and sight-reading.
Russell Pascoe describes the piece as
work aimed at choral societies to fill a gap in the market. It was certainly
that: brimming with strong orchestral textures, scintillating colours and
carefully crafted choral writing. Many styles and idioms surface during the
eleven poems, perhaps almost too many for a central musical aesthetic to be
established. But the pace ensures that performers and listeners alike are kept
on their toes throughout.
The text, compiled by Professor
Anthony Pinching, draws upon extant secular verse exploring bereavement and
loss. Its opening
pulls no punches, Wilfred Owen’s disturbing war poem I Saw His Round Mouth’s
Crimson following on from John Donne’s No Man Is An Island. Baritone
Julien Van Mellaert, in dialogue with Nicki Woods’ mournful cor anglais over
low strings, admirably avoided melodrama in delivering Owen’s chilling lines.
For Hardy’s The Going, baritone and mezzo soprano engage in canonic
interplay, supported by inspired percussion writing and chamber-like orchestral
The first climax of the piece came with Dylan
Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle. Here, the composer showed he had no intention
of offering the orchestra an easy ride. The turbulent music, reminiscent of
Britten’s storm scene from Peter Grimes, made huge demands on strings and
woodwind - demands which they proved themselves more than able to meet. Only
the words suffered a little to be heard through the busy textures and difficult
acoustic of the cathedral. The three poems that followed allowed lighter, folky
elements to surface. Stephen Anderton’s Cats and Cakes even afforded a
chance for some humour. In her exuberance at this point, Ms Wyn-Rogers’ voice
began to show some hints of strain.
The interjections of Tagore’s Peace, My Heart,
which until this point had remained unchanged from one iteration to the next,
revealed itself in full at the end of The Transition, heralding in the fifth
section of the work and the second of its great highlights: Walt Whitman’s When
Lilacs Last. Starting with a slow build over repeating timpani, this movement
would have made a crushingly effective conclusion to the work. For this reviewer,
of Seasons, while providing a positive note on which to end, felt
somewhat out of place, akin to a film that has had pressure from the backers to
add a happy ending to an otherwise powerful and thought-provoking movie.
Notwithstanding, the performers gave it everything they had, and the work ended
to tumultuous applause, composer and librettist joining the conductor, soloists
and orchestra to acknowledge their richly deserved reception.
who has yet to hear the Three Spires Singers and Orchestra should make a note
in their diaries of the next concert: Saturday July 2nd, the
programme comprising Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, Haydn’s Te Deum and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No
23. One could hardly imagine a programme more in contrast to this one.
Chris Best is a Cornwall based
composer and writer. More info can be found at www.chrisbestmusic.com