Endnotes, May 2022
In this edition: Wagner and Brahms from Kent, Bach Piano Concertos from the Piccadilly Sinfonietta, reviewed by Stuart Millson
Ralph Vaughan Williams memorably described Britain’s musical life as a pyramid. At its apex, stand the performers of international renown – and beneath them, the great mass of serious amateurs who sing in choirs and play instruments for their own spiritual joy and recreation. The latter description certainly applies to one ambitious body of men and women – the East Malling Singers – an organisation with some 50 years of concert-giving to its name: memorable evenings, devoted to Handel’s Messiah, Britten’s St. Nicolas, many of the great choral works by Bach, and most recently, Ein deutsches Requiem (Op. 45) by Johannes Brahms.
Fielding a sixty-strong chorus in the resonant acoustic of the mediaeval Church of St. James the Great, supported by an ensemble of young, professional instrumentalists – the ad hoc East Malling Orchestra – the management of the Singers was, no doubt, extremely proud of the intense, well-crafted and well-sung Brahms which resulted. Not an easy work to sing for a professional choir, the Kent performers truly showed how eight weeks of disciplined rehearsal, under the baton of conductor Ciara Considine, can produce remarkable results – not least in those fugue-like, Bach-like sections of Brahms’s overwhelmingly dark writing, which call for a torrent of voices, each spurring the other onward.
The German Requiem, though, begins in a twilight state: a mournful opening in which violas are to the fore; and the first movement – ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted’ – fades away with a woodwind-like phrase which could almost have come from the composer’s First Symphony. The famous fourth movement – ‘How lovely are thy dwelling places’ – brings a warm glow of sunlit sweetness to the work; again, a sense that one is in the slow movement of Symphony No. 1 or in the forest-glade opening of the Second Piano Concerto. To close one’s eyes at this moment in the work during the rendition given by the East Malling Singers and Orchestra – to feel the atmosphere of the church, too – was to imbibe the full potency of Brahms. It would not be wide of the mark to say the experience was just as great as hearing, for example, the recording (on Deutsche Grammophon) by the Czech Philharmonic under Giuseppe Sinopoli – this reviewer’s favourite version of the Requiem.
Two professional soloists had been engaged for the Brahms, Nicola Corbishley, soprano, and Simon Thorpe, baritone – and both added to the overall impression of solidity and emotion which radiated throughout the evening. And in Part One, Mr. Thorpe (with credits at Welsh National Opera, Cork Opera, Opera Australia etc) set the stage in emphatic Teutonic style, with a “bleeding chunk” of Wagner. From the opening of The Ring cycle – Das Rheingold – came an earth-shaking vision of the god, Wotan; Simon Thorpe capturing a moment from this lengthy operatic saga brilliantly.
Followers of English music will undoubtedly be inspired by the East Malling Singers’ July Jubilee concert. Training and rehearsals are already underway for John Rutter’s Gloria, Vaughan Williams’s O, Clap Your Hands, the Stanford Magnificat and Benjamin Britten’s motet-like arrangement of God Save The Queen – to name but four items from their summer season. I wonder how many of our professional choruses across the Kingdom are preparing such a feast?
From the enterprising Sleeveless Record Label, comes a new, baroque CD – devoted to Bach’s Piano Concertos: No. 1 in D minor (BWV 1052); No. 4 in A major (BWV 1055) and No. 3 in D major (BWV 1054). And what a joyous recording this is: mint-fresh, clean-cut – but not cold or in any way astringent – the splendid period-tone of the Piccadilly Sinfonietta accompanies soloist Warren Mailley-Smith in works that offer a synthesis of the intricacies of the Goldberg Variations and the concise, tuneful Brandenburg Concertos.
Bach was a great recycler of his own music, and so listeners may well pick out snatches of other works as they enjoy the piano concertos – especially the album’s most obvious example: ‘Piano Concerto’ No. 3, for example, is actually a transcription of the E major Violin Concerto, so this could be disconcerting to some! The soloist, Warren Mailly-Smith, has carved out an international career, appearing at Wigmore Hall, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and at venues in China, Australia and the United States – with a performance at Carnegie Hall.
Frances Wilson provides clear, to-the-point programme notes in the CD booklet – singling out the fourth concerto as offering “filigree details for the soloist”. And a lively, sparkling style comes through in Mr. Mailley-Smith’s performances, and yet he changes gear so effortlessly for the Adagio or Larghetto movements. We await further recordings from these artists with great anticipation.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
CD details: Bach, Piano Concertos, Piccadilly Sinfonietta, Warren Mailly-Smith, Sleeveless Records, SLV 1033.