What the critics say
This page contains reviews of live performances.
Reviews of recordings can be found on individual recording pages, under Album details.
Mahler: Symphony No.8, 'Symphony of a Thousand'
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, City of London Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Tiffin Boys' Choir, Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan School, Vasily Petrenko
Royal Albert Hall, 22nd October 2022
"This symphony traverses all life and ends, via the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust, in heaven. From the gargantuan crash of organ at the start, voices launching into “Veni creator spiritus”, to the phenomenal final climax, this is music of powerful physicality. Every member of every choir was drilled to the highest standards: the Philharmonia Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, City of London Choir, Tiffin Boys’ Choir and School Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School... For anyone mourning the loss of large-scale, mind-shattering events in the past two years, this was redemption." **** Fiona Maddocks, Observer
"Several of its best moments are big and visceral: take the thundering organ and vast walls of choral sound in the Veni, Creator Spiritus or the brass blazing from up high, behind the choir. That’s music you need to feel in your bones. Petrenko let those sonic spectacular passages soar, driving Part I forward and brilliantly landing Part II’s transcendent, redemptive conclusion 90 minutes later... The RPO was on agile, focused form. But really, this symphony is about the voice...." The Times
"Fortune favours the bold, and it certainly favoured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday night. While post-pandemic nerves and imminent recession are persuading some outfits to play safe, the RPO booked the biggest venue in town to play the biggest symphony ever written, Gustav Mahler’s Eighth, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”. They were rewarded with a near sell-out house and a standing ovation.... At the very end, the massed voices of the Philharmonia Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and City of London Choir first almost whispered and then sang at full volume Goethe’s famous lines about the Eternal Feminine leading us upward. Lord knows what they actually mean, but the joy and splendour of that final affirmation were overwhelming." ***** Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph
"The [Royal Albert] hall, opened in 1871, is practically purpose-built for Mahler’s Eighth. Equipped with a thunderous organ and outlying balconies on which to place offstage instruments, it embraces the opening roar of Veni, Creator spritus (come, creative spirit) with expansive ease. Bring it on, says the hall, and that’s just what Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic did, before a house that was packed, rapt and ecstatic. Almost as if Covid never happened... Of the half-dozen Mahler Eighths I have heard in concert, Tennstedt, Solti and Chailly stand out. Today’s was a performance in that elevated class, maybe even a bit more. A Mahler Eighth and a half. Otto e mezzo, as Fellini would have said." Slipped Disc
"It’s one of the few works in the repertory that’s ideally suited to the dimensions of the RAH, and, from the massive organ chord that launches the opening Veni Creator Spiritus hymn, the RPO’s imposing performance, with around 400 voices in the chorus, seven soloists and an orchestra of more than 100 players, certainly sounded as if it belonged there... The choral singing (the combined forces of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony choruses, City of London and Tiffin Boys’ choirs and the Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School) was massive and glorious, the soloists utterly secure." **** Andrew Clements, The Guardian
"...a glorious experience that nobody is going to forget in a hurry." ****The i
Vaughan Williams 150th anniversary year: A Sea Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican, 3rd May 2022
"Many musical events, festivals and programmes this year are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great English symphonist, Ralph Vaughan Williams – or RVW as he was known. The composer was one of the inspirational forces behind the cultural phenomenon known as the English Musical Renaissance: the period from the late-19th to early-20th century, when a distinctive national style of music was evolving in these islands. Elgar and Parry already dominated the musical landscape – their work often compared to the sound-world of Brahms – but with Vaughan Williams, a new course for English music was plotted: a journey along the coast and countryside of England, in which folk-songs were collected; and a scholarly immersion in the history of our church music, which led to such masterpieces as the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
Elements of all sides of Vaughan Williams’s style came together on Tuesday 3rd May at the Barbican Concert Hall, London, as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and City of London Choir took to the stage, with conductor Hilary Davan Wetton, for a performance of the anniversary composer’s A Sea Symphony. This was his first symphony and completed in 1909 – a substantial work about mankind’s place within the universe which had occupied RVW’s mind for some years. Setting the inspirational words of American 19th-century transcendental poet Walt Whitman, in the first movement the composer depicts a scene in which the ships and “ship-signals of all nations” can be seen: a sunlit moment, beginning with an exhortation, supported by brass, by the full choir – “Behold, the sea itself…”
Yet the piece also works at a much deeper level, and by the second movement, we are beginning to ponder eternity in a slow, processional nocturne: On the Beach at Night Alone. The baritone soloist has an important role to play in this section – and for this performance, the well-known and much-admired Roderick Williams (an advocate of English music) sang the words with an intimate, chamber-like intensity. Although a large hall, somehow the Barbican seems to offer a much “closer” experience for concertgoers; closer to the music and performers: the platform design being such that an orchestra seems to be almost within arm’s reach, or extending into the heart of the front stalls, with ample seating at angles on either extremity of the stage.
Such proximity allowed the Barbican audience that night to savour the soft, silvery string sound of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; the darting detail of woodwind in the shanty-like passages and RVW’s noble writing for horns, which the ensemble’s players clearly relished. Hilary Davan Wetton has been a presence on the conducting podium for many years – and he first came to my attention in a radio broadcast in the early-1990s, in which he conducted Holst’s Marching Song with the Ulster Orchestra – Holst being a friend of Vaughan Williams a fellow folk-enthusiast. More substantial Holst pieces were Davan Wetton specialities on a Hyperion CD with the Philharmonia Orchestra, including a rousing rendition of the old English choral folk-balled, King Estmere. And with many appearances at the English Music Festival to his name, this conductor was certainly right for the great distances, moods and English visionary romanticism of A Sea Symphony.
The maestro inspired some fine singing from the excellent City of London Choir, a formation of choral artists who provided some spine-tingling, hushed moments in the great final movement, The Explorers – and in the work’s extraordinary scherzo movement – The Waves – in which, on the edge of our seat (or deck) we experience tricky, treacherous tides and stormy waves splashing against the sides of our vessel, only for the ship to triumphantly steer through the wind and water. Mention must also be made of the evening’s soprano soloist – Sophie Bevan – whose clear enunciation and strong voice projected above the symphony’s choppy waters and ever-rich, larger-than-life orchestral sound.
Vaughan Williams and Walt Whitman “steer for the deep waters only” in this most majestic of works – the natural successor to Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom, but more than that: the creation of a choral symphony, recognisably 20th-century in its style and emotions – with wider tonalities, and writing that seems to draw authentic life and energy from the very shores and seascapes of our our island home. Yet the music slowly raises us into a world beyond the physical and real, as if we are seeing through a telescope our own planet and our little lives, “… O vast Rondure, swimming in space” – that beautiful Whitman line. And in the Barbican concert hall, with its razor-edged sound-clarity, the audience emerged exhilarated as if they had been walking along a coastal path – the “ceaseflow flow” of the ocean and the blown spume, just a few precarious footsteps away." Stuart Millson,The Quarterly Review: Endnotes
RPO/Bebbington/Davan Wetton – Vaughan Williams 150th concert
"Although many orchestras and musical organisations are marking the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams, the concert at the Barbican on May 3rd by the RPO and the City of London choir, under the commanding figure of Hilary Davan Wetton, with soloists Sophie Bevan and Roderick Williams in the Sea Symphony, and the very rarely heard Fantasia on the Old 104th for solo piano, chorus and orchestra with Mark Bebbington, set standards in programming and performance it would be hard to beat. The programme began with the familiar overture to The Wasps, crisply and sensitively played, followed by the rarely-heard Norfolk Rhapsody No 1 – so numbered, although we never hear any other. This may not be one of VW’s greatest orchestral works but does not deserve neglect, and it fitted well within the programme.
Great interest lay in the Fantasia, dating from 1950, doubtless planned as a companion to Beethoven’s rarely heard Opus 80 for the same forces. In the challenging solo part Mark Bebbington proved ideal, his fine musicianship maintaining high technical and intellectual standards throughout. The City of London Choir was fully integrated in this challenging work, with intonation and diction admirably sustained. Davan Wetton’s grasp of this music was total, as it was in the nobly fine performance of the Sea Symphony. With soloists of this calibre, and the Choir fired up, as it were, by the Fantasia, the result was truly memorable, burnished by flawless and very moving contributions from Sophie Bevan, most especially in ‘Token of all brave captains’ and from Roderick Williams, whose phrasing, diction and musicianship in ‘On the beach at night’ were exceptional, flawlessly partnered throughout by Hilary Davan Wetton." James Palmer - Musical Opinion, July 2022
Anniversary marked by three classics and a peculiarity
"Amid the warm familiarity of a programme of established Vaughan Williams favourites, presented at the Barbican by the RPO and the City of London Choir, what really drew me in was the chance to hear his Fantasia on the “Old 104th” Psalm Tune, performed at the Proms in 1950 and apparently not heard again in London since.
The piece, seemingly modelled on Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, pits choir and orchestra against solo piano in a set of variations on a 17th century hymn tune. Unfortunately it turns out there is a good reason it hasn’t been heard for more than 70 years: it's a bit of a dud.
This didn’t detract from a very enjoyable concert, and the chance to hear a neglected work by a great composer was fascinating and not to be missed, but this is not an overlooked masterpiece. It’s a very odd conception. The choir sings intermittently, mostly simple chordal harmonisations of Thomas Ravenscroft’s melody. But there are long passages in which the piano plays alone, slightly meandering, characterless sections, most of which I spent willing the orchestra to start playing. Although Mark Bebbington (pictured below by Dan Way) gave a whole-hearted performance the piece is neither fish nor fowl, only coming to life in its final minutes as RVW unleashed his full “pomp and circumstance” manner. It was a glorious peroration, but couldn’t paper over the cracks. The rest of the first half was a pair of justly un-neglected classics. The Overture to The Wasps is irresistible and it was given a sparkling outing here. Conductor Hilary Davan Wetton, who has just announced his retirement from the City of London Choir next year, had the energy of someone half his age, lithe and engaged and – at one climax in the second half – even flinging his baton into the second violins. Christopher Gough’s horn solo was a thing of understated beauty but the whole RPO line-up shone.
The Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 was a change of mood, a world away from the rumbustious Wasps. Abigail Fenna’s beguiling viola solo was a cousin of RVW’s famous lark but darker in colour and Katherine Lacey’s clarinet at the other end of the piece was both reassuring and unsettling. In between Davan Wetton led a beautifully-paced build up and joyful folk dance section. It was a very winning performance. The second half consisted of A Sea Symphony, featuring baritone Roderick Williams (his second Sea Symphony in a three days) and soprano Sophie Bevan. It has one of the great openings to any symphony – “Behold, the sea itself” – and a magical last few moments, as the cellos and basses fade away to nothingness. But pace the piece’s undoubted popularity, for me the bits in between never quite live up to the bookends. It just feels a bit unwieldy, a bit dense, a bit de trop. I prefer the transparency of the later symphonies.
That said, there was no questioning the commitment of this performance, or denying there were many wonderful moments. I always enjoy hearing Roderick Williams and this was no exception: his ability to switch on a sixpence from a grand oratorio manner (“O Thou transcendent”) to a conversational lieder-style (“To-day a rude brief recitative”) was wonderful. Sophie Bevan was delicate in duet with Williams, but occasionally took off the handbrake and soared. Likewise the choir were up for the big moments, but also revelled in the hushed a cappella passages, “bound where mariner has not yet dared to go”." Bernard Hughes, The Arts Desk
Prom 2: Fauré’s Pavane & Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé
Saturday, July 14, 2018 Royal Albert Hall
"No doubt Charles Dutoit was originally in the driving seat for this Prom, but step forward Alain Altinoglu who led the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a vividly theatrical performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, complete, preferable this way so as to appreciate the composer’s overall structural mastery as well as savouring the opulence and the bold colours.
Altinoglu had the measure of the piece. It is a glittering and brilliant score that at its heart is a pastoral romance. Some conductors turn it into a Technicolor spectacular but Altinoglu was detailed and suitably balletic with a feeling for characterisation, including grotesquery and youthful ardour. The opening beguiled with subtle gradations of timbre and gracefully moulded lines, and there were lovely shadings and rhythmically supple phrasing. In the glorious ‘Daybreak’ (which opens Suite 2) he drew refined and, as appropriate, full-blooded playing from the RPO. The woodwinds were eloquent throughout with Emer McDonough’s flute wistful and touching, and the combined choirs brought an otherworldly element of Ravel’s score as well as youthful ardour and virile power, although a ringing mobile did them (and us) no favours at one point. The final ‘Bacchanal’ exuded electrifying energy and excitement.
Earlier, Francesco Piemontesi had played Mozart’s final Piano Concerto, its intimacy dwarfed by the size of the Royal Albert Hall, Radio 3 listeners probably getting a better deal, and clapping at the end of the first movement didn’t aid concentration. However, Piemontesi creating pearly tones with flowing (added and liberal) decoration, his fingers remarkably neat, and he caught the work’s moods perfectly. Altinoglu and the RPO accompanied attentively although sometimes the strings were thin. As an encore Piemontesi played the first of Brahms’s Opus 117 Intermezzos with melting loveliness.
The evening began with Faure’s Pavane in its choral version, intimate and fervent, Altinoglu keeping the music moving so that its ebb and flow was natural." Brian Barford, Classical Source
Summer Music in City Churches: Storm and Refuge
Thursday 21 June, 2018, St Giles Cripplegate
“The beautiful churches of the City of London are among the capital’s glories, and wonderful places to hear music – especially at this time of year, when the City of London Festival normally takes place. The demise of that festival was a definite loss, which Ian Maclay, former MD of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was determined to fill. Together with Jenny Robinson, he’s created a week-long festival named Summer Music in City Churches, based around the centenary of the end of the Great War.
The theme has been interpreted loosely, as the opening concert in St Giles Cripplegate from the City of London Choir showed. It included settings of Psalm 29 and 48 by Elgar, which actually date from the beginning of the War, or just before, and aren’t yet touched by it. But already one detects an elegiac feeling, alongside the outbursts of fervour, and at times – in the second – a strange harmonic unease, as if the music has temporarily lost its moorings.
All these feelings were beautifully caught by the choir under their artistic director Hilary Davan Wetton. They summoned a terrific intensity of tone in the final tumultuous lines of Psalm 48, but even this was topped by the incandescent ending of the evening prayer Nunc Dimittis by Gustav Holst. It’s an extraordinary piece which began with an uncanny feeling of harmony emerging from a vast distance, and gradually took shape as a homage to the great Renaissance tradition of Byrd and Palestrina.
After the interval we heard the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé, a piece composed in 1947, which may seem to be stretching the First World War theme implausibly far. But in spirit the piece is close to Gustav Holst, in the way it recreates something precious from the past, as a way to stave off the spiritual confusion of the present. In Duruflé’s case that precious thing is church plainchant, which winds its way through the choral writing like a golden thread.
The performers, including baritone soloist John Lee caught the music’s seraphic calm, while the incisive playing of organist Mark Williams made sure the music’s radiance never seemed becalmed, which is always a danger with this piece. Occasionally the rapture was disturbed, as in the tragic Pie Jesu, which was thrillingly sung by mezzo soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons. In all it was a fine start to the festival, which promises many good things over the coming week.” Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph
Summer Music in City Churches: Flowers of the Field
Friday June 29, 2018 St Giles Cripplegate
“A new festival has been launched, Summer Music in City Churches, here commemorating the centenary of the First World War, with an emphasis on British composers affected by the Great War.
This programme was carefully constructed to present an elegiac nostalgia for simpler times. Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite set a lively mood, the London Mozart Players strings playing with finesse, the stately richness of the ‘Pavane’ balanced by the dashing ‘Mattachins’. George Butterworth’s settings from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad followed in a sensitive arrangement for strings by Roderick Williams. His vocal performance was exemplary, with effortless phrasing in ‘The Loveliest of trees ‘ and ‘Look not into my Eyes’, and the solo scoring for ‘Is My Team Ploughing’ proved a masterstroke.
Patrick Hawes’s choral I Know the Music (2014) sets an unfinished poem by Wilfred Owen in a highly effective and descriptive fashion. The intimate details from the Front contrast with the descriptions of Nature and country life in the poem. George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow (1913) provided folksong in sophisticated musical clothes and Elgar’s Chanson de matin anchored us securely in his Edwardian soundworld, and then Ruth Rogers transported us to the skies with her delicate impersonation of The Lark Ascending.
The bucolic dream continued in Gerald Finzi’s Requiem da Camera, haunted by strains of Butterworth and also Housman’s melancholy, especially in the opening section where ‘Loveliest of Trees’ and the bugle-call of battle are quoted. The setting of nine stanzas of Masefield’s August 1914 is quiet and close and was conveyed with light simplicity by the City of London Choir; hushed and profoundly moving. The baritone solo found Williams’s bass notes resonant with Finzi’s distinctive chromatic turns and triplets, and the final verse “We who are left” evokes the despair of the bereaved and the hope enshrined in renewal and birdsong, part of a performance to be treasured under Hilary Davan Wetton.” ***** Reviewed by Amanda-Jane Doran, Classical Source
13 February 2018, Barbican
Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ is nowhere near as often encountered as it once was, when it rivalled Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in frequency of performance, but the music of course remains the same. It was therefore with some eagerness that many will have looked forward to this performance at the Barbican on February 13, and the enthusiastic audience was not disappointed.
Introduced by Lord Chartres, in support of the The Sherrifs’ and Recorder’s Fund of The City of London, Hilary Davan Wetton directed a finely-shaped and commanding account of this great masterpiece with the City of London Choir consistently impressive in terms of weight, sensitivity ad tonal colour – the drama and intimacy of the work, a rare combination, were well conveyed in Davan-Wetton’s control of his large forces.
The soloists were perhaps a trifle more variable, but always acceptable; Njabulo Madlala made a fine Elijah, and the two female soloists – Rachel Nicholls, soprano, and Diana Moore, mezzo-soprano, were also to be admired. Daniel Norman, tenor and Freddie Jemison, treble (as the small part of the Youth), were equally notable for their musicianship.
But it was the City of London Choir that won the plaudits for their finely-balanced tones throughout. An admirable evening.
James Palmer, Musical Opinion
Haydn's Mass in Time of War
Cadogan Hall, 12 April 2016
A wonderful concert, quite the tonic (if you will forgive the Classical pun, initially unintended). Hilary Davan Wetton and the RPO began with the Figaro Overture. ‘Authenticists’, although not the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, would probably have described it as ‘sedate’, but it was not; there was life to it and real symphonic stature too (lack of a development section notwithstanding). Crisp, warm, with nothing exaggerated to the accents, nor to anything else, it sounded just right. There was some gorgeous horn-playing too.
My only complaint about the next item was that we did not get to hear the entire KV 339 Vespers. No matter: we heard a lovely account of the most celebrated ‘number’, ‘Laudate Dominum’. Grace Davidson offered a clean, honest, stylishly ornamented performance of the soprano part, her bell-like voice ideally suited. Warm playing and choral singing from the City of London Choir were equally appreciated…
Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli received an equally fine performance. Its opening ‘Kyrie’ already seemed to speak both of the composer’s warm humanity and of his symphonic-developmental genius. Davidson’s soprano entry presented us with a change of tempo and mood, with all the virtues of her solo performance. Davan Wetton took the movement at quite a lick, yet without hurrying, let alone harrying, it. And how could one not fall in love, were one not already, with the composer of those responsorial (now soprano/alto to tenor/bass, now vice versa) eleisons? The ‘Gloria’ likewise had a proper sense of Haydn’s gloriously civilised eighteenth-century nature, with serious symphonic backbone lest one fall back on clichés of ‘Papa’. Davan Wetton’s choral experience was very clear – and welcome, as was the discipline of the singers themselves. The cello solo for the ‘Qui tollis’ section had its richness matched – sorry about another unintended pun – by that of the bass-baritone of Ashley Riches. Clarity and warmth were, again, shown to be anything but antithetical. There was a gloriously rich choral sound too on ‘suscipe’, followed by hushed by ‘deprecationem nostram’ premonitions of the Missa solemnis, also to be heard upon the imprecation ‘miserere nobis’. Highly convincingly, the ‘Quoniam’ section was taken at the tempo of a typical Haydn symphonic finale. Those ‘Amens’: again, how could one not adore them?
The opening of the ‘Credo’ was taken slower, the sturdiness of the Church as Rock of St Peter vividly communicated. Haydn’s neo-Baroque tendencies were here given their full due. The dark orchestral writing of the ‘Et incarnatus est’ section, not just its harmonies, but also its neo-Handelian writing for bassoon (I thought of the Witch of Endor), was splendidly conveyed. Mark Wilde’s Italianate manner and Anna Harvey’s richness of tone somehow both seemed to prepare the way for the firework-like ‘Et resurrexit’. The final fugue, quite rightly, returned to that opening sturdiness, again evoking Handel. Out of that, the ‘Amens’ sounded gorgeous: fruit that was almost Mozartian in its indecency.
Sweetness and vigour characterised the ‘Sanctus’, Wilde’s contribution finely balanced. The ‘Bendictus’ sounded both tragically imploring and imploringly tragic, prior to the balm of the major mode, properly post-Mozartian in its ambivalence. Musical values were never sacrificed to the merely ‘theatrical’ in the ‘Agnus Dei’, although the military music was played for everything it was worth. (Again, Haydn seemed to steal from the Beethovenian future.) Choral consolation was as real as it was lovable. We all need more Haydn in our lives; we all need more choral Haydn in our lives. Mark Berry, Boulezian
Haydn’s Nelson Mass,
Cadogan Hall, London, November 2015
‘A packed audience witnessed a packed platform. Hilary Davan Wetton – a Boult pupil and a conductor-prize-winner in 1967 – has a fifty-year career to look back on. But he is ploughing forward, for this concert marked the first of six collaborations between the City of London Choir (Davan Wetton its Artistic Director since 1989) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that will embrace the Mass settings that Joseph Haydn composed towards the end of his life. Each programme includes a Mozart Piano Concerto.
The opener was Mozart’s Regina coeli, composed when he was in his early-twenties. Lasting about five minutes, the chorus is supplemented by four vocal soloists with an orchestra of strings (without violas), oboes, trumpets and timpani, and organ. The City of London Choir impressed immediately in this exuberant and festive setting…’
‘…The laurels of the evening went to the Haydn and its rendition (using Breitkopf’s 1804 publication, which has added woodwind parts, seemingly approved by Haydn). The ‘Nelson’ Mass was thought to reflect his victory over Napoleon in the 1798 Battle of the Nile, but this was disproved by Haydn guru H. C. Robbins Landon in that such news only reached Haydn after the Mass’s completion. Nevertheless the Admiral (and Lady Hamilton) did attend a performance of it in 1801.
The great and prolific composer, with so much written, had nothing to prove, and Haydn’s final works are invested with experience and candour, and no lessening of genius. The ‘Nelson’ Mass reflects the anxiety of war-torn times in patrician musical terms. Tension, yes, but joy too. This was a notable account, Davan Wetton the master of the music, energising it, caring for it while ensuring strength of purpose. Whatever was needed Davan Wetton judged it just-so, and with minimal pauses between sections an onward flow (but never rush or impatience) created an unbreakable experience.
The City of London Choir was outstanding – honed and committed – the RPO consistently neat and stylish. In the “Qui tollis” of the ‘Gloria’ Darren Jeffery was imposing, the chorus pared down to a beautifully judged mezza voce and John Roberts contributed a beguiling oboe solo. By contrast, the ‘Credo’ was sung (and swung) with true belief, and fugal writing was brought off with brisk clarity. Trumpets play a significant part in the scoring, adding exhilaration or sounding a warning, and (here from on-high) enhancing the dramatic interruption to the ‘Benedictus’. Of the other vocal soloists, Rachel Nicholls, with much to do, was fearless and uninhibited.
Conducted with conviction and insight, and unflappable co-ordination, Hilary Davan Wetton brought out the inspiring and consolatory nature of this music, the final words, “Dona nobis pacem” (Grant us peace), made uplifting. This was excellent. Amen!’ Colin Anderson, Classical Source
Full text available at: http://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_concert_review.php?id=13226
Finzi Requiem da Camera
Music in Time of War, St John’s Smith Square, November 2014
It is not so often that new or little-known items by the composer Gerald Finzi (1901-56) emerge. This is partly because he is admirably served by the Finzi Turst and its offshoot, the Finzi Friends. Finzi did stalwart work in retrieving and championing other composers, most notably Ivor Gurney, and he has himself been relatively well served and thoroughly championed. Even minor instrumental pieces have been brought in to the public domain.
There was surprise and delight, therefore, in discovering that the City of London Choir, under its conductor, Hilary Davan Wetton, has not only readdressed, but also recorded, Finzi’s early Requiem da Camera, a 20-minute work evolved scarcely five years after the Great War, but not heard till the 1990s.
It was inspired by the death in battle of Finzi’s beloved teacher Ernest Farrar (1885-1918), and into it Finzi injects the sadness of war, not by echoing Owen’s “monstrous anger of the guns”, but by implying war while underlining the rural idyll from which military service in the trenches separated the men.
A Prelude, darkly led in by cello, then sombre, searching clarinet and oboe, makes sly allusion to “Loveliest of Trees”, the Housman setting by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who was just five days younger than Farrar and was likewise killed in the war. (The latter’s The Banks of Green Willow, surprisingly dramatic in places, with finely worked crescendos from the London Mozart Players, and a beautifully managed final fade, had opened the concert.)
Then Finzi sets three poets. He was an inspired chooser of words. All three passages are apt and relevant; and it is no surprise that Thomas Hardy, being the poet he most loved to set, is one of them:
“War’s annals will cloud into night Ere their story die” is Hardy’s conclusion to “Only a man harrowing clods”, a rustic poem whose plodding bass gives way to the briefest of cello solos and several passages that foreshadow his ravishing solo cantata Dies Natalis. Hardy knew about other wars, not just the First World War. John Masefield actually entitled one of his weightier poems, “August 1914”: folds, valley, blue hills, “a rout of rooks”, for which, in the longest movement, Finzi reserves canonic writing between upper and lower voices, and some especially fine a cappella detail, then exquisite woodwind for “the tilted stacks, the beasts in pen”, as the farmsteads feel the “rumours and alarms” of war: “And knew, as we know, that the message meant The breaking off of ties, the loss of friends: Death, like a miser, getting in his rent, And no new stones laid where the trackway ends.” As they sadly leave “the Well-loved Downs”, Finzi’s delightful, almost ironic string envoi ushers them to their likely end.
Cor anglais and bass clarinet both colour brief interludes within the final setting, of two stanzas by Wilfrid Gibson, which bewail “How they went Ungrudgingly, and spent Their all for us, loved too, the sun and rain…”, while we who are left “feel the heartbreak in the heart of things”.
Every small detail of Finzi’s writing – woodwind, chuntering horn, or the sad echo in a lulling, unfife-like flute of the Last Post – tells a story.
This was a noble performance that captured the yearning, mixed with enchantment, of this rare work: not quite mature in design, but absorbing in its honesty. We owe this valuable new edition of the whole work, heard also on disc with Vaughan Williams and Gurney (Naxos 8.573426; the City of London Choir has already recorded Finzi’s Christmas cantata In Terra Pax on 8.572102), to the editor Christian Alexander.
Church Times December 2014
Finzi Requiem da Camera (**UK premiere of new completion by Christian Alexander**)
Dorchester Abbey, English Music Festival, May 2014
‘It was Farrar, Lewisham-born and later the Harrogate-based teacher of Gerald Finzi, killed near Le Cateau two months before the Armistice, to whom Finzi dedicated his post-war indictment – but also commemoration – of conflict, Requiem da Camera (“War’s annals will cloud into night Ere their story die”), roughly coinciding with Vaughan Williams’s elegiac Third Symphony. The City of London Choir under Hilary Davan Wetton gave a stirring performance of the Finzi as a culmination to that evening’s richly rewarding concert.’ Church Times
John Gardner Stabat Mater; Britten Rejoice in the Lamb; Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs
Dorchester Abbey, English Music Festival, May 2013
‘Davan Wetton’s well-drilled City of London Choir, stalwarts of the festival, worked wonders with the late John Gardner’s (1917-2011) Stabat Mater – especially haunting for the soprano Lucy Hall’s Ariel-like high tessitura and dwelling on the agonised cry “Filius”; for the expressive choir words; and for the lucid organ registrations from Lichfield Cathedral’s former organist Philip Scriven… The highlight of the whole extended weekend, for me – though there was much I did not hear – was a performance of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, his Christopher Smart cantata commissioned for St Matthew’s, Northampton. The voice of the 23-year-old tenor Edward Leach (“For the flowers are peculiarly The Poetry of Christ”) shone through like a beacon; and Vaughan Williams’s George Herbert setting, Five Mystical Songs, in which the young baritone Thomas Humphreys touched nerves one would associate with a John Shirley-Quirk or a Bryn Terfel. With such talent feeding through, and artists of such ravishing quality, what need the English Music Festival, or the English music scene, fear?’ Church Times
Holst’s Two Psalms and The Coming of Christ with the London Mozart Players, St John’s Smith Square, November 2010
‘… the performers, the youthful City of London Choir under its director Hilary Davan Wetton (himself a long-standing champion of Holst’s work) proved that magic could be kindled there…’ BBC Music Magazine blog
‘…The City of London Choir, under the energetic leadership of Hilary Davan Wetton, maintains close links to the English Music Festival (based in Dorchester on Thames); and the two share a laudable commitment to ensuring that less well known English repertoire, especially of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is given a chance to be heard, and now also recorded… In the late “Host of Heaven” section, the SATB choir came alive, prising out the colour from “the first blackbird’s cry Come, with the dripping of the new-shaken From twigs where yellowing leaves and reddening berries lie”, and achieving a perfectly timed, stilled effect from the quizzical, almost Eliot-like “and how night goes, but, on a sudden, is not, even… The finest, subtlest singing from the City of London Choir came at the very start: Holst’s setting of a 17th-century paraphrase of Psalm 86, in which the unison pianissimo lead-in by altos and basses was magical, and the ensuing tenor solo, first unaccompanied and then sustained by female voices, was wonderfully atmospheric. The choral tutti that concluded was likewise uplifting and first-rate…’ Church Times
‘‘The first is mystical and the second exuberant, and the choir responded to both with, by turns, singing of quiet ecstasy and jubilant exuberance. In both Holst works soloists from the chorus gave solid and distinguished performances… Quite why this work has languished in obscurity for so long is a mystery to me for it is very approachable and makes an appealing addition to the few great works which are heard every Christmas. The City of London Choir did Holst proud tonight, with their vibrant advocacy which conveyed their obvious delight in the music … an occasion to be relished and the City of London Choir is to be applauded – as it was, for over 2 minutes! – for giving us this opportunity to hear this wonderful music.’ MusicWeb International
Britten’s St Nicolas Cantata, St John’s Smith Square, November 2010
‘the City of London Choir’s contributions were vital and galvanised, and the work came over particularly well as a vivid dramatic entity, not least in the vigorous storm scene and at Nicolas’s farewell, touchingly offset by the Nunc Dimittis.’ Church Times
‘…Using all the forces in the hall, the four trebles, as the baby Nicholas and the Pickled Boys were excellent, the small, but significant, contribution from the St Paul’s Girls School Chamber Choir, placed in the gallery, was most welcome, and with Justin Lavender a fine soloist, totally in command of the music, and delivering a muscular and insightful account of his part… Davan Wetton directed a fine performance which raised the work onto a higher plain than that on which it actually resides. But the evening was most memorable for the fine singing of the City of London Choir, and full praise to them and their director Hilary Davan Wetton for such an inspired programme…’ MusicWeb International
Beethoven’s Der Glorreiche Augenblick at the Barbican with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, March 2010
‘In this extremely rare performance, the City of London Choir, under conductor Hilary Davan Wetton, sang a partial rewrite by the German conductor Hermann Scherchen… the best of the 40-minute piece expresses the same kind of humane optimism Beethoven would fully explore in his Ninth Symphony. The final section, in which a children’s choir and Turkish instruments add to the general rejoicing, achieves a genuine sense of celebration. The City of London Choir and the Royal Philharmonic were on impressive form throughout.’ The Guardian
Vaughan Williams’s Hodie and Finzi’s In Terra Pax at the Barbican with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, November 2008
‘Singing with consoling warmth here, the choir found full-throated power where needed in Hodie… Marshalling the Royal Philharmonic, the boys of Westminster Under School and a trio of soloists along with his well-blended choir, Hilary Davan Wetton was the commanding conductor. I don’t expect to hear better Christmas music this season.’ Sunday Telegraph
Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the London Mozart Players and narrator Timothy West, May 2008
‘the singers… supplied an idyllic soundscape, and the ripe-toned speaker etched in all the poetic detail. Conducted with nuance by Hilary Davan Wetton, this programme (with the London Mozart Players) also featured the violinist So-Ock Kim in Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, a poised performance that took gentle flight, plus rare choral treasures by Holst and Bliss.’ Sunday Telegraph
Arthur Bliss’s rarely heard Pastoral: Lie Strewn the White Flocks at St John’s Smith Square, March 2007
‘…the conductor Hilary Davan Wetton unlocked its elusive beauty. The choir sang with well-blended tone throughout, most memorably in ‘The Naiads’ Music’, where the women’s voices had gossamer lightness …another of the City of London Choir’s enterprising programmes.’ Sunday Telegraph
Carol concert, December 2007
A carol concert with bells on, this annual appearance [at the Queen Elizabeth Hall] by the City of London Choir – one of the country’s leading amateur outfits – does away with stiff British reserve.’ The Guardian
Review of a concert given by the choir with Milton Keynes City Orchestra and narrator Jeremy Irons for the inaugural English Music Festival in Dorchester Abbey, October 2006
The orchestra was joined by the excellent City of London Choir for the two works that framed the concert [Holst’s Two Psalms and Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy]. The orchestra, chorus and narrator all caught the melancholic mood of the piece… The choir and orchestra excelled under the adroit direction of Davan Wetton. Together, they were able to demonstrate what great English musical treasures have been allowed to gather dust, and to show what a great shame it is that they have been allowed to do so. The Independent
Janácek’s Otce nás at St John’s Smith Square, April 2006
‘this mosaic-like score came across with flow and propulsion thanks to the sympathetic conducting of Hilary Davan Wetton. The choral singing was richly detailed, and softly floated textures contrasted effectively with episodes of full-voiced power.’ Sunday Telegraph
Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine and Requiem at St John’s Smith Square, April 2006
‘Pleasure is exactly what this performance generated.’ Sunday Telegraph
Haydn’s Mass in Time of War and Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican, November 2006
‘the choir’s handling of the Vaughan Williams, the difficult chromatic lines tackled with secure intonation and clear, confident articulation, was an achievement of which it can be proud.’ The Guardian
Bach’s St John Passion at St John’s Smith Square, March 2003
‘This performance of the St. John Passion certainly stood out, with the City of London Choir confirming its reputation as a leader among non-professional choruses. Next season sees the choir’s fortieth anniversary, but few of its members would have been born when the group was founded: the choir sings with fresh vitality. Under the baton of its music director, Hilary Davan Wetton, the opening chorus rolled out majestically, yet there was also a lightness of attack essential in this music. Though the choir is hardly small, it can sing with soft control. There was a strong sense of performance pleasure here, making for musical results a far cry from those rooted in maudlin routine. Such a lively, responsive chorus is well suited to this work, characterised as it is by dramatic interventions. The restrained drama of the rush to Golgotha, where the chorus joins the bass soloist, was superbly managed. And the consoling final chorus was sung with expressive warmth.’ The Times