Review: Westminster Choir sings Howells’ Requiem and more with striking refinement
BY BILL GUDGER
Special to The Post and Courier
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and its luminous acoustics were the perfect environment for the Westminster Choir’s presentation of compositions by three British composers.
“Music of the spheres” sounded and resounded through the neo-Gothic arches and off the marble, plaster and wooden surfaces.
Conductor Joe Miller led his 40-voice choir through music by Tarik O’Regan, John Tavener and Herbert Howells. None of these are exactly household names, even among classical music lovers. But their choral music speaks to the soul.
O’Regan’s “The Ecstasies Above” starts from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Israfel.” It does not so much set the text in an audible way as it creates sonic images inspired by it. The choir is pitted against a solo octet of voices plus a string quartet, members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
The sonorities are exquisite. O’Regan is influenced by minimalism but not in the repetitive pattern style of Philip Glass. The angel of Poe’s poem soars, particularly in the high voices of the two soprano soloists.
Part of O’Regan’s heritage is North African, which is evident in the ornamental violin writing.
Tavener captured international attention with the most striking music heard at Princess Diana’s funeral (Elton John notwithstanding). Today we heard his “Svyati,” a setting of a Russian Orthodox funeral text very much in the Russian choral style.
Cellist Christopher Costanza, a member of the St. Lawrence String Quartet and a regular in the festival’s chamber music series, was at the front of the church intoning the priest’s music.
The effect of the choir, which had moved to the gallery at the back of the church, was otherworldly. As Miller said in his eloquent introduction to the concert, it was as if we heard the casket move down the aisle and out into the light.
Returning to the front of the Cathedral, the choir concluded with Howells’ Requiem. This mid-20th-century composer is known for his settings of the Anglican evening service (“Mag and Nunc” Collegium Regale for King’s College Choir) and short anthems such as “Like as the hart.”
His Requiem composed in 1932 started as simple (for Howells) funeral music intended for the King’s College Chapel, which eventually morphed into “Hymnus Paradisi,” a large-scale orchestrally-accompanied oratorio.
Behind all this was the composer’s grief at the death of his young son from polio. The Hymnus was not performed until 1950, and the 88-year-old Howells finally released the Requiem in 1980.
It is a daunting work in terms of tuning chords while singing unaccompanied. But it has a certain British reserve about it that was lost in the rather exaggerated dynamics of the choir.
Nonetheless there was a beautiful silence at the end, the performance marked by some good solo work from members of the choir.
Miller’s choice of music for this program is very much his response to the architecture, acoustics and holy space that is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
It was in every way “site-specific” music that engaged the audience. A copy of the Poe poem would have helped with comprehension of the O’Regan, but I imagine Miller just wanted us to bathe in the beautiful and intriguing soundscape.
The audience’s response to the Tavener and Howells was more immediate, and cellist Costanza received three curtain calls for his moving playing, acknowledging the Westminster Choir and Miller.
Miller’s remarks and the concert-style presentation by the choir ensured that this funereal music gave hope for light and transcendence.
As is always said of Brahms’ Requiem, this music was comfort for the living, not grief for the dead.