REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Ryedale Festival premiere of Seven Mercies, Church of St Peter & St Paul, Pickering, May 21

Kathryn Rudge: “Inspired soloist”

RYEDALE Festival floated a powerful reminder of its status in the community with this world premiere of a new song-cycle written by a Pickering-born composer and largely performed by inhabitants of Ryedale.

Joseph Howard’s Seven Mercies was inspired by mediaeval murals in Pickering Church, which have only recently been brought back to life and decoded from beneath the whitewash of centuries.

They refer to specific acts of kindness – properly titled Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy – mentioned by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount and illustrated here by stories from the Bible.

Howard’s music is built around Emma Harding’s poetic libretto, which at its core delivers a song-cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano. Its sections use different female characters whose hardships have been alleviated by someone else’s generosity, often put into a modern context: a refugee, for example, or a hospital patient prevented by Covid regulations from receiving visitors.

That is the backbone of the work and no doubt it could stand alone. But it is immensely coloured and given depth by several choral and brass interludes, as well as introduction, prologue and finale.

Joseph Howard: Pickering-born composer of Seven Mercies

Much of the text here has been devised by choir members themselves. Ryedale Festival Community Choir, under Em Whitfield Brooks, and Ryedale Primary Schools Choir (taken from Pickering Community Junior School and Gillamoor C of E and St Joseph’s RC Primary Schools), conducted by Holly Greenwood-Rogers, were joined by a brass quintet of junior members from Kirkbymoorside Town Band and bell ringer Pam Robb.

Kathryn Rudge was the inspired soloist. Her clean, clear, beautifully projected mezzo was exactly suited to evoking the plight of the desperate and the downtrodden, and Christopher Glynn’s fluently controlled piano gave her superb underpinning. When she took to the pulpit for the finale, she soared angelically above and through the combined forces below, as if offering divine support.

Both choirs had evidently been keenly trained. They represented the voices of the community coming to the aid of the needy. Where the adults were sympathetic and affectionate, the children were infectiously enthusiastic, an apt balance. The young brass were impressive too, in an early fanfare, a lament and a smooth duet for cornets.

Howard’s music, which was always attuned to the text, divided into two styles: a thoughtful, modal English for the soloist that was reminiscent of Vaughan Williams and a much more universal, generally major-key and strongly rhythmic approach for the ensembles. This made sense with such a wide range of talents on hand: all were shown to best effect.

We may thank the Richard Shephard Music Foundation for its association with an occasion that both highlighted an important piece of local history and underlines what a force for good the Ryedale Festival continues to be. The festival itself will run from July 15 to 31 with full details at

Review by Martin Dreyer