At this year’s Remembrance Sunday concert at Saint Nicholas Church, Salthouse, Angela Dugdale conducted the Kelling Consort, with Chloe Barnett (soprano), Chris Gadd (baritone), Michael Allard (piano) and a string ensemble led by Joanna Clinton, in a performance of three works by English composers.
The concert began with the five-part motet SalvatorMundi by Thomas Tallis. This was sung by a semi-chorus, who, after a slightly hesitant start by the sopranos, soon achieved the delicate balance and purity of tone which sixteenth-century polyphonic music demands. In the next piece, Greater love hath no man by John Ireland, one or two sopranos revealed an unfortunate tendency to sing slightly below the note, particularly in the final few bars of the work, and there was occasionally some rough singing from the tenors and basses, which marred what was otherwise a sensitive performance of this attractive work.
The centrepiece of the concert was a performance of the rarely heard cantata Dona Nobis Pacem by Vaughan Williams. This is a setting of the AgnusDei of the Mass, three of the war poems of Walt Whitman, a quotation from John Bright’s famous speech on the Crimean War and a group of Biblical texts concerning war and peace. It is a work of great complexity and dramatic power, which in its treatment of the contrasting themes of war and peace bears comparison with Britten’s War Requiem, written twenty-six years later, and, perhaps since both Whitman and Vaughan Williams, unlike Britten, had direct experience of warfare, surpasses it at many points in eloquence and emotional intensity. In a dramatic work of this kind, in which texts of great literary merit are set to music, it is essential that the singers pay special attention to clear enunciation and dynamic nuances. In this respect, the two soloists, though they sang with feeling and musicality throughout, fell a little short of the high standard set by the choir, who in addition to overcoming most of the considerable technical difficulties of the music, movingly conveyed both the anguish and the hope that lie behind the exalted language of the text.
The contrast between the slow and mournful soprano solo in the opening ‘AgnusDei’, with its sudden alternations between pianissimo and fortissimo, and the brilliant sonorities of the following section, ‘Beat! beat! drums!’, was thrillingly brought out by the orchestra, and the choir handled the dissonances and dynamic changes of this section with attack and authority. I was again reminded of Britten, in this case his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. In the next two sections, ‘Reconciliation’ and ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, there was some lovely phrasing from the choir, especially in the inner parts, and this was well maintained for the rest of the performance. In the final section, ‘Nation shall not lift up a sword against nation’, where hope at last prevails, the sopranos handled their high notes with commendable precision, and both choir and orchestra captured beautifully the contrast between the exhilaration of ‘Good-will towards men’ and the hushed ‘Donanobispacem’, which brought the performance to a moving conclusion.
Angela Dugdale is to be congratulated on having brought together in a single programme three works each of which represents some of the finest and most distinctive elements in the English musical tradition, and in particular for having tackled so challenging a piece as DonaNobisPacem, a challenge that her soloists, pianist, orchestra and choir all proved themselves fully able to meet convincingly.