Psalmfest – A review of the Concert in Malvern Priory

Review: “Psalmfest” – The Elgar Chorale, Great Malvern Priory – 10.03.18

Regular aficionados of The Elgar Chorale will, by now, be familiar with a high standard of performance and musical direction, annealed to a challenging and well-designed programme of music. This concert, which was based on the Psalms, did not disappoint on any account and certainly the audience were given full value for their money.

There could be no more appropriate way to start a concert in Malvern, than with a piece by Elgar and for this, their Musical Director, Piers Maxim, chose- “Give unto the Lord” based on Psalm 29, and with its dramatic setting of the text, got the concert off to an excellent start. The Chorale displayed well-controlled dynamics and tempi and a very impressive sound. Peter Shepherd provided superb accompaniment throughout, finding appropriate registration to colour the shifting mood of the text.

Samuel Wesley’s unaccompanied setting for double choir of Psalm 114 “In exitu Israel” seemed to challenge the Chorale more, and one felt that they were rather tentative and somewhat lacking in confidence. Herbert Howells’ setting of verses from Psalm 42 “Like as the Hart” was, by contrast, quite exquisite. Piers Maxim secured an evocative and beautiful performance from his singers -the men in particular, deserve special mention for their clear diction, dynamics and unity. Peter Shepherd’s accompaniment was very sensitive and enhanced the Choir’s beautiful timbre.

For his organ solo, Peter Shepherd chose Howells’ “Psalm Prelude Set 1 – No 1” based on verses from Psalm 34 – Lo the poor crieth, and the Lord heareth him. Shepherd knows the Priory organ well and made imaginative use of the large variety of stops to convey the turmoil and pathos of the troubled soul and its eventual release from torment.

The Chorale gave an impressive performance of “O how amiable” by Vaughan-Williams. This well-known setting of psalm 84 enabled the choir to show some fine unison singing coupled with positive attack and strong ensemble sound. Psalm 23 was represented here in a setting by Lennox Berkeley. The pastoral scene was evocatively set by Megan Wall, who managed the challenging soprano part beautifully. The Chorale sounded rather tentative as they negotiated some tricky part writing, but were more confident with the supportive organ accompaniment.

The much anticipated world premiere of Piers Maxim’s “A Festival Anthem-De Profundis” was indeed, well worth waiting for. Maxim is a published composer and is well-known for his singable melodic lines, beautiful harmonies and skilfully crafted pieces. The five movements of this Festival Anthem, linked together by organ interludes, were based on sacred and secular texts.  The work began with a brooding organ introduction, which led us into Psalm 130 “Out of the deep”. This was a very moving setting and full of contrasts in timbre and dynamics. The second section, which featured the Bass and Soprano soloists, was based on Ann Boleyn’s theme from her song “O death rock me asleep”. Maxim’s haunting setting enabled both soloists – Alan Fairs and Aine Smith – to display some fine, confident singing. The third section was written for soprano solo and is based on Psalm 39. For the most part, Maxim chose to use the slightly unusual octatonic mode, which created a feeling of uncertainty, as intimated by the text. Aine Smith’s voice has a pure and lovely sound and she coped effortlessly with the demands of the music. The fourth section was a choral setting of Stevenson’s “In Memoriam F.A.S”. Reminiscent of the harmonic language of Howells, this was a very moving piece and elicited some excellent singing from the Chorale. The final setting used verses from a variety of psalms, culminating in the last verse of Psalm 150. This section was joyous and full of hope, praise and exuberance. All in all, this is an anthem that deserves to appear in the repertoire of every competent choir who has an accomplished conductor and skilful accompanist.

Seven movements from John Rutter’s “Psalmfest” completed this chorally taxing programme. “O be joyful in the Lord” got off to a great start with characterful organ accompaniment. The Chorale handled some very tricky cross-rhythms well. “I will lift up mine eyes” opened with tenor, James Atherton, soaring up to the hills – closely followed by the Chorale and the other two soloists – creating a serenely peaceful atmosphere. Balance, sound and diction were exemplary throughout. Shepherd really enjoyed himself in “Praise the Lord” with triumphant splashes of trumpets encouraging the Chorale to match the joyous mood. James Atherton with Aine Smith featured again in “The Lord is my light” displaying some lovely singing – while the Chorale provided dramatic contrast “Though an host of men were laid against me”.

Cantate Domino/Veni Creator is an A cappella setting in 8 parts. The Chorale opened strongly with contrasts between loud/ joyous and gentle/reflective moments. “O how amiable” with a lilting organ accompaniment, showcased the soprano and tenor soloists. The voices were nicely matched and blended together very well, yet kept their own identity. The final movement “O clap your hands” was a jubilant piece containing dance rhythms, trumpet fanfares and joyful singing and brought this superb concert to a thrilling conclusion.

James Morgan

Our Soloists were generously support bt the Elmley Foundation