Review: Armonico Consort & Baroque Players at Harrogate Music Festival
“There is no reason why an atheist could not write a good mass”. And there is no substitute for the shameless cribbing of programme notes. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ observation must have been manna to the creative processes of any of his musical contemporaries who were chiseling tortuously at the limits of their own consciences. His words echo the cheery certitude of Scots Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, who went to his grave in the sure knowledge of absolute demise, with no possibility of resurrection.
No reason, either, why a committed Republican should not take great satisfaction from Armonico Consort and the Baroque Players’ musical commemoration of the coronation at Harrogate’s St. Wilfrid’s church on Friday night. Just as the disconnection between spirituality and faith echoed around the aisles of this wonderfully acoustic liturgical space, the need for royal approval was subsumed in the aural backwash of transcendence.
And what a performance. This version of the programme of events that unfolded on 2nd June, 1953 in Westminster Abbey, was necessarily truncated, without making any concession to brevity. As Christopher Monks – Armonico’s founder and director - pointed out before the concert, the coronation ran to almost four hours. But the highlights, including several of Vaughan Williams’ own works, were given real power and authority by the choir in the transept, and the orchestral ensemble obscured from view in the chancel. Not least in the Creed
from the Mass in G Minor
of 1922. Preceded, here, by Hubert Parry’s fulsomely grateful and uplifting I Was Glad
and Herbert Howells’ contemplative introit, Behold of God our Defender
, Vaughan Williams’ complex Mass was a triumph of focus and control, of startlingly resonant solo performances, and seamless exchanges with the full choir. Ever a prey to suggestion – you can hear the influence of Russian Orthodoxy in the early measures - the composer’s writing is faithful to a sixteenth century antiphonal tradition as it also bespeaks a natural consonance with the originality of his wider oeuvre.
Handel’s Zadok the Priest
needed little introduction, though former ITV Royal Correspondent, Nicholas Owen was on hand to dispense formal and anecdotal commentary on the provenance of the pieces and their relation to historical events. Delivered, fittingly, from the pulpit, Owen’s own ‘performance’ was magisterial, a persuasive combination of melodrama and earnest. Rendered at every coronation since it was conceived, for the crowning of George II in 1727, Zadok
's thundering, anticipatory glory builds like the battalions at Waterloo, and the Church Militant was emboldened no end by the wonderfully executed, and inspiring, opening of rising instrumentals before the full-throated shock of the choir gave the impression of a much greater presence; a waking of the dead by the sonic crescendo would have pleased Handel.
After the interval, we were eased into reflection with Samuel Wesley’s meditation Thou Wilt Keep Him
, performed, particularly in the lower male registers, with a complementary gravitas, prior to a deeply affecting choral interchange. And an apt preamble to the astonishingly popular choral reading of Psalm 100, All People That On Earth Do Dwell
, a hymn that encourages audience participation, if only under the breath.
from Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G
and its opening female exchanges leading to an eloquent undertow of four-part male voice, processed with a mellifluity of rising and falling harmonies, each succeeding the other in a delicate hegemony of interplay. Commissioned for the coronation, Vaughan Williams’ final contribution to the event, O Taste and See
, was a very short, very beautiful refraction of light through a glass of reflection, lending a simplicity of purpose to a solemn moment.
A return to tradition ushered in an authoritative rendition of Stanford’s Gloria in Excelsis Deo
, which was composed for the coronation of George V in 1911, and it would be hard to disentangle the piece from the palpable air of processional triumphalism that is reinforced, perhaps ironically, in proportion to the skill of its purveyors. An argument you could never make of the sublime Amen
from the Jacobean composer, Orlando Gibbons, whose quiet solemnity would have provided a mirror to the closing moments of the ceremony in 1953. Performed as though in the stillness of an empty hall, Armonico’s breathtaking interdependence of vocal harmonies sounded pristine, and strangely modern, in the vaulted, but intimate, setting of this fine church.
The Baroque Players contribution to the evening’s finale – Walton’s Coronation Te Deum
- was an emergence from relative calm into a brazen musical maelstrom. The piece, originally composed for the coronation of George VI, is entirely apposite to that impulse for celebration that never fails to animate the spirit of pomp and circumstance in, especially, English onlookers. Giving full vent to the ensemble’s brass players, the Te Deum
is an enabling moment in the hands of skilled performers, a facilitator, almost of the general goodwill, and a glorious coda to a, by turns, rousing, affecting and reflective evening’s entertainment.
Armonico Consort & Baroque Players, with Nicholas Owen as narrator, performed at St Wilfrid’s Church, Harrogate on Friday, 15th July. The concert was a part of the Harrogate Music Festival.
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