REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Musical Society’s Mozart Requiem

Bass-baritone soloist Alex Ashworth. Picture: Debbie Scanlan

Mozart Requiem, York Musical Society, at York Minster, June 18

THERE was plenty of early evidence that the York Musical Society chorus was in excellent health despite the pandemic, in an evening mainly involving two works Mozart wrote in his last two months. Evidence, too, that its conductor David Pipe has acquired a more confident stance.

In the Requiem, heads were well out of copies for the Kyrie’s double fugue, which held no terrors for the choir, so that the succeeding Dies Irae, where the strings also had to be on their mettle, was stirringly crisp.

The soprano soloist Anita Watson had interjected her ‘Te Decet Hymnus’ very smoothly at the start and it was no surprise that she remained the most relaxed member of the solo quartet.

The bass-baritone Alex Ashworth opened the Tuba Mirum forthrightly enough but lacked real heft at the bottom of his range. Nevertheless, the quartet made a well-blended entity, all four minimising their vibrato: the Recordare was persuasively prayerful; the Benedictus almost as satisfying if more operatic.

The quartet’s inner voices were Kate Symonds-Joy and Peter Davoren. The choir meanwhile was going from strength to strength, with the sopranos benefiting from a white-hot engine-room of keen voices at its core. This paid special dividends whenever they had high entries, notably in the Domine Jesu.

There had been a notably transparent texture when sopranos and altos were duetting in the Confutatis; tenors and basses were marginally less effective, though as ‘lost souls’ they had some excuse. That, and the following Lacrimosa, which had an intoxicating lilt, proved to be the heart of the work, which ended serenely.

The orchestra had its moments too. Throughout the work, the bass line – cellos and double basses – gave the firmest possible foundation, always a bonus for a choir. The trombones had a field day, at once funereal and majestic. The violins, so often hard-worked but under-recognised in Viennese masses, were splendidly attentive, led by Nicola Rainger.

The evening had opened with Haydn’s motet Insanae et Vanae Curae, his late adaptation of a storm chorus from an oratorio on Tobias. It was good to hear its orchestral version, when so often in cathedrals it is organ-accompanied. In truth it got off to a bumpy start but was much more incisive on its repeat, with its gentler F major section bringing tears to the eyes, as it promised balm after woe.

In between the choral works, Jonathan Sage was the highly effective soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. His runs were steady, his trills tight, and he offered plenty of light and shade. Playing a basset clarinet – an A clarinet with extension that enlarges the lowest, chalumeau register – he managed a movingly intimate ending to the slow movement. He also injected little touches of ornamentation into repeats during the closing rondo, which positively danced.

David Pipe’s orchestra was with him every step of the way. Indeed, Pipe remained cool and controlled all evening.

Review by Martin Dreyer

York Musical Society to perform at York Minster after two-year hiatus on June 18

Bass-baritone soloist Alex Ashworth: Picture: Debbie Scanlan

YORK Musical Society (YMS) will return to York Minster for the first time in two years in its summer concert on June 18.

The 150-strong choir will be joined by York Musical Society Orchestra and four soloists, together with York clarinettist Jonathan Sage, to perform a 7.30pm programme of Mozart and Haydn works.

Musical director David Pipe says: “It’s a long-awaited thrill for York Musical Society to return to York Minster – our first concert there since November 2019 – performing one of the choir’s favourite works, Mozart’s Requiem.

“It will be preceded by Joseph Haydn’s stormy Insanae Et Vanae Curae and Mozart’s much-loved Clarinet Concerto. We hope audiences will enjoy listening to this fantastic music in such an awe-inspiring setting.”

YMS’s returning soloists will be soprano Anita Watson, mezzo-soprano Kate Symonds-Joy, tenor Peter Davoren and bass-baritone Alex Ashworth, as well as Sage.

Haydn’s Insanae Et Vanae Curae is thought to be a reworking of the chorus Svanisce In Un Momento from his oratorio Il Ritorno Di Tobia, first published in 1809.

Sage’s performance of the Clarinet Concerto will be given on a basset clarinet: an extra third lower than the standard instrument and the clarinet envisaged by Mozart for this concerto.

The climax will be Mozart’s Requiem, the work he was composing at the time of his death in 1791 at the age of 35 and long regarded a masterpiece of Western classical music.

Tickets cost £25, £20, £12 or £6 (student/under-18s) on 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or on the door. Admission is free for children aged under 13 if accompanied by an adult.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Chapter House Choir, York Minster Nave, 13/11/21

Composer Lillie Harris: “Commissioned piece will stand alone well as an introit or anthem”

ON the eve of Remembrance Sunday, there could be no more perfect choice of repertory than A German Requiem, Brahms’ non-liturgical memorial to the dead. It was given in the original German to the composer’s own piano-duet version, alongside a short unaccompanied new work commissioned from Lillie Harris.

Like so many performers during lockdown, Chapter House Choir under Benjamin Morris has struggled to stay together and survive. So this was a test of its mettle, as well as being the first post-lockdown ticketed musical event at York Minster itself.

While it is true that Brahms intended a “human” requiem, he did not mean a humanist one, as implied by the programme note. The two words are not interchangeable. He selected exclusively biblical texts for his work – as did Miss Harris, who used only texts selected by Brahms, understandably but also courageously, given that comparisons were bound to be made between old and new.

Her motet, entitled Comfort, began with a prolonged hum incorporating a three-note motif. At first this seemed to be the link between the five brief sections of text. But like the grass withering, it faded and the tonality became more diffuse, in a manner reminiscent of Eric Whitacre, with a slight loss of focus.

Alex Ashworth. “Forthright at the top of his range”. Picture: Debbie Scanlan

The ending – “so will I comfort you” – resolved beautifully, speaking of a technique capable of offering more challenges than were on offer here. My feeling is that this piece will stand alone well as an introit or anthem but will tend to be overshadowed in the company of a whole requiem, like a tugboat sheltering beside an ocean liner, largely overlooked.

Commercial nous was what drove Brahms to write this four-hands at one piano version of his Requiem, which was quickly demanded after the success of the orchestral original. It makes for a more intimate atmosphere but should not be regarded as a complete replacement.

A smooth line was immediately apparent in the choir, with sopranos pinging their high notes satisfyingly. In ‘For all flesh is as grass’, each return of the opening unison was progressively firmer and the closing fugato appeared in a crisp staccato.

Soprano Susan Young: “Maternal, consolatory tone”

In the first of his two contributions, baritone Alex Ashworth was forthright at the top of his range while sustaining an impressive legato. The mood-change at “the souls of the righteous” was almost jaunty; no reason why not, given Brahms’ positive attitude and keenness to avoid prolonged lugubriousness.

It was in “How lovely are thy dwellings” that it became clear that the pianists, Eleanor Kornas and Polly Sharpe, who were otherwise unfailingly tasteful, needed to come to the fore at moments when the choir was not involved rather than remain in the background. They were not, it should be added, blessed with a piano in ideal shape: it sounded particularly tinny in the upper reaches.

The maternal, consolatory tone that soprano Susan Young found for “You now therefore have sorrow”, suggesting that a silver lining lay round the corner, was just about ideal. She polished it off with a beautifully controlled piano that distilled the very essence of Isaiah’s words of comfort.

If the last trump fell slightly short of sending shivers down the spine and the fugue that followed it lacked clarity because individual entries were not given enough prominence, there was considerable compensation in the finale, ‘Blessed are the dead’, which was clean, confident and comforting. The Chapter House Choir is back and in fine fettle.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Chapter House Choir to perform Brahms’s German Requiem and Lillie Harris world premiere at Saturday’s York Minster concert

Baritone Alex Ashworth: Soloist for Brahms’s Ein Deutsches. Picture: Debbie Scanlan

THE Chapter House Choir performs Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem at York Minster on Saturday night.

This 7.30pm concert is a rare opportunity to hear Brahms’s own arrangement written for piano duet (the ‘London version’ premiered in 1873), revealing the work in a new light: more intimate and transparent, exposing a wider variety of choral timbres and textures.

Baritone Alex Ashworth, who also teaches singing at the Royal Academy of Music, joins soprano Susan Young, who has sung notable roles at English National Opera and Opera Holland Park, to perform the Brahms work alongside pianists Eleanor Kornas and Polly Sharpe.

Soprano Susan Young

“Hearing the Chapter House Choir is never just about the music; it’s about the whole experience,” says choir publicist Richard Long. “That’s why this performance of Brahms’s German Requiem promises to be a remarkable concert, combining one of the best-loved choral works of all time with the magical ambience of York Minster, four outstanding soloists – and a world premiere too.”

Musical director Benjamin Morris, York Minster’s assistant director of music, says: “The opportunity to explore this piece in its more intimate version for piano with four hands accompaniment has been really exciting for all of us.

“Together with the unique acoustics and incredibly grand architecture of York Minster’s Nave, this will offer an exhilarating and emotional experience of the German Requiem.”

Chapter House Choir musical director Benjamin Morris

The world premiere will be Comfort by award-winning emerging composer Lillie Harris, specially commissioned for Saturday’s concert.

Lillie says: “Reflecting the strong themes in Ein Deutsches Requiem of love, loss, acceptance, and human mortality, I have sought to bring these ideas together in Comfort: music to create an embrace of warmth, love and understanding, that acknowledges the sadness of loss but also celebrates the joy and memories in a life well lived, and that brings voices together to express support and comfort.”

This weekend’s concert will be dedicated to the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tickets can booked on 01904 557200 or at yorkminster.org.

Composer Lillie Harris: Commission for Chapter House Choir

Who is composer Lillie Harris?

LILLIE graduated from the Royal College of Music in 2016, studying composition with Haris Kittos and winning the Elgar Memorial prize for her final portfolio.

Musical from a young age, her interest in composing grew out of learning instruments, a flair for languages and a love of creative writing. Narrative ideas and complex emotions are often a core element in her compositions, and perhaps explain her increasing interest in choral music.

Her pieces have been workshopped and performed by ensembles such as York’s Ebor Singers, the Assembly Project, Florilegium and Ensemble Recherche, and she has participated in young composer schemes with Psappha, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, National Youth Choir of Great Britain and London Symphony Orchestra, who commissioned her to write new pieces for its Elmer’s Walk Under-5s concert.

In 2017, she was awarded the Tenso Young Composers Award for her song cycle setting poems by August Stramm; in 2019, she was the joint-winner of Echo Choir’s composition competition for her setting of an Alice Oswold poem; in 2020, two choral works written on the NYCGB’s Young Composer Scheme were released on NMC Recordings.