In Fine Voice

After a very successful inaugural concert earlier in the year, Andrew Clarke QC reviews the Bar Choral Society’s second concert.

The Bar Choral Society’s second ever concert took place in Temple Church on 18 November 2014.

It proved to be another triumph. The rapturous applause and broad smiles, from audience, choir and soloists alike, was testament to how much everyone present enjoyed it.

The Fauré Requiem, which began the concert, is very different from the larger scale works of Verdi, Brahms and Berlioz. Fauré preferred the intimate, the elegant and the subtle. His colouring is delicate, his aim to capture a spirit of peace, serenity and joy. Indeed, his requiem has no Last Judgment, often the cue for the deployment of orchestra and chorus on a large scale and at high volume. It was conceived as a liturgical work to be performed in a church with the principal (or sole) accompaniment being from the organ.

That is how the Bar Choral Society (BCS) performed it and not in the more familiar version with an orchestra. Such an approach puts the singers centre stage; they do not compete with (nor can any errors be obscured by) an orchestra. This was a challenge that the choir and soloists met, ably assisted by Roger Sayer’s splendid work at the organ. There were appropriate moments of calm and of reflection, but it could never be said that the performance lacked drama, power or intensity where required.

The soloists were splendid. Roderick Williams has a rich full-bodied voice. His delivery was at once powerful and intimate, particularly in the Libera Me. The choir (and audience) appeared to hang on his every word, as if he was speaking directly to each of us. He used the acoustic of the Temple Church to great effect as did Sarah Gabriel. Hers is a pure, bright soprano voice. She sang with intelligence, displaying a lovely tone and great discernment in the Pie Jesu. This is a beautiful, but very familiar, solo.

It can be cloying, but her performance was not. She was at her best when hushed and understated and her whole performance was deeply moving. The contribution of the choir was always deeply felt, but controlled. All of four parts sang impressively: there was a quiet intensity throughout, phrases were well shaped with an absence of unnatural exaggeration. That is not to say that there was any lack of energy, or attack, rather that power and volume were deployed where appropriate, but never at the expense of subtlety.

The Libera me showed us a well-directed choir capable of dealing with the rhythmic ebb and flow of the piece and able to work with the soloist to create an impressive sound. The In Paradisum had a quiet stillness at the start; it glowed gently, developing to a radiant conclusion. Here, as elsewhere, the organ did not so much accompany as augment the choir and soloists: together they produced a performance worthy of their historic surroundings.

Fauré regarded death as a happy deliverance and said that he had composed his Requiem “for pleasure” (although its initial composition coincided with the death of his father). Greg Morris has not only coached some fine singing out of this choir, but has very obviously helped them to enjoy their singing and to convey that enjoyment to their audience.

Once called “a scribbler of cow pat music”, Ralph Vaughan Williams moved from a fierce atheism to being what his wife described as “a cheerful agnostic”. Some might then find it strange that several of his most admired works were inspired by Anglican liturgy and music, the King James Bible and the visionary mysticism of the metaphysical poets. His Five Mystical Songs are settings of four poems by the priest and poet George Herbert. They are taken from a collection appropriately called The Temple. They provided the second piece for this concert.

The baritone soloist is prominent in the first three songs and the fourth is his solo. The fifth is a setting for the choir of the famous triumphant song of praise Let all the world in every corner sing, my God and King. In addition to that rich full-bodied voice, Roderick Williams also possesses excellent diction. Both are essential qualities for the baritone soloist in this work and he displayed them effortlessly. He captured the poet’s joy in the resurrection found in the first two songs. Particularly well realised was his quiet musing in the third verse of the second song, as against a simple melody he questioned “Can there be any day but this? …” to which the choir responded, confidently, “There is but one and that one ever.”

The third song is the most intimate as the poet reflects upon his relationship with God. The interplay of the soloist and the choir, humming the plainsong melody, was both simple and moving. Temple Church is a splendid venue for such quiet contemplations. This was a mood carried into the penultimate song. Simple, yet profound, in the hands of Roderick Williams it was both moving and thrilling.

Yet, the greatest thrills are found in the final song. The work moves from the quiet and contemplative to a bold declaration of faith and a demand that this faith be proclaimed. The command is for the church to “shout” its psalms in every corner of the world. Hitherto, the choir had been careful and tuneful, but restrained. It would be all too easy, with the accompaniment of pealing bells and trumpets rushing along from the organ, for the choir to lose discipline, but it did not. It was fresh and confident, but always in control; a tribute to the skill of its director, Greg Morris.

Praise is indeed due to Roger Sayer, the organist, for his work throughout this less familiar piece. A wonderful organ in the hands of a skilled organist is a joy to hear. The strength of the applause when he descended from his organ loft rightly marked the appreciation of both choir and audience for his performance.

I again urge competent singers at the Bar (and family and friends) to join in the fun. The next concert is on 10 June 2015 (the Nelson Mass). The rehearsal schedule (beginning on 30 March) is designed to suit the life of a busy barrister.

Further details are on the Society web site www.barchoralsociety.co.uk.

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Andrew Clarke QC

Andrew is a Silk in Littleton Chambers. He is widely regarded as a leading member of the employment Bar with a wide ranging practice.