Crickhowell Music Festival: The Courts of Earth and Heaven
Crickhowell Choral Society, Stephen Marshall
St Edmund’s, Crickhowell, 30 April 2017
Handel: Eternal source of light divine (Birthday Ode for Queen Anne)
Delalande: Regina coeli
Campra: Quam dilecta
Vivaldi: Gloria (RV588 – the ‘other’ Gloria!)
A walking weekend in the Brecon Beacons happened to coincide with the annual Crickhowell Music Festival. I have reviewed the whole Festival in the past but, on this occassion, could only manage one performance, given in St Edmund’s Church, Crickhowell by the Crickhowell Choral Society and a ‘festival’ orchestra, together with a very impressive group of soloists. One of the things that most impressed me on my earlier visit was the ability of their director Stephen Marshall to attract outstanding and international renown singers such as, on this occasion, Grace Davidson, Nicholas Mulroy, and Catherine King.
The ambitious programme featured music from England, France, and Italy. It opened with Handel’s 1713 Birthday Ode – a homage to Queen Anne, and indeed, to Purcell, whose style he so perfectly absorbed. The opening arioso ‘Eternal lource of light divine’ is one of the most beautful musical creations of all time, with Handel’s understanding of Purcell’s style made obvious. It makes for a very exposed start to a concert, and one which tenor Nicholas Mulroy coped with magnificently. His high lyrical tenor voice hasn’t quite the timbre of a countertenor that Handel intended, but was nonetheless quite exquisite, in this, and in later movements. Grace Davidson’s soprano aria ‘Let all the wingéd race’ was similarly impressive. Both of these key singers demonstrated their excellent ability at singing Baroque ornaments properly, rather than using the often heard reliance on vibrato alone.
Catherine King’s ‘Let flocks and herds’ was eloquent, as was her contributions to the duets with Grace Davidson. Bass Stephen Hamnett impressed in the rumbustuous ‘Let envy then conceal her head’ as he blasted away the factions and hissing toungues. The colourful words are rather more sensible than most of the often ingratiating offerings for royal birthdays, with each section ending with the same refrain of ‘The day that gave great Anna birth’ from the first aria, noting her attempts at bring peace to a conflicted Europe.
The soprano, tenor and bass soloists then sang Campra Quam dilecta, with Nicholas Mulroy adopting a haute contra voice, the typically French very high tenor that they used instead of the falsetto countertenor voice beloved of the English and Italians. The choir joined the four soloists for another French piece, Delalande’s Regina Coeli, copying well with the complex switched of tempos.
They finished with Vivaldi’s Gloria but, for a very welcome change, not the famous one (RV 589), but the relatively unknown RV 588. This Gloria uses several movements from a similar piece by another composer, as well as pieces recognisable from other Vivaldi pieces. The first movement of the Gloria itself overlaps with the end of the alto motet Jubilate, o amoeni chori, traditionally sung before it, with the choir starting to sing the words ‘Gloria’ during the second aria of Jubilate. The rapid repeated notes of the Jubilate accompaniment set the mood for the combined pieces. There follows one of Vivaldi’s finest choral movements, the extended Et in terra pax for the full choir built on a series of slowly descending scales and an occasional descending chromatic 4th, adding a rich intensity, the more powerful for the fact that it is sung quietly. This is a real test for any choir, and the 60-plus singers of the Crickhowell Choral Society are to be congratulated on even attempting it.
With my normal reviewing remit of major international festivals and (mostly) London concerts, it is easy to forgot just how much music making goes on within the community with choirs and small scale music festivals like this. Other events in the festival weekend included a jazz concert, a concert for lute and singer, with Catherin King and Jacob Heringman, and a performance during the normal morning service of the Bach Cantata BWV194 Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest, composed in 1723 for the dedication of the new organ in Störmthall, a village just outside Leipzig. Incidentally, the Störmthall organ still exists, in the state that Bach knew it, and I have given several recitals on it. The weekend finished with a concert of music by Haydn, Buxtehude, CPE Bach and Mozart.
It was good to see that the choir included five Choral Scholars, a wise attempt to involve a rather younger generation.