Spirit of the Nation
For the Fallen - Douglas Guest
Greater Love - Ireland
Elegy in Bb - George Thalben-Ball
Songs of the Fleet - Stanford
Turn Back O Man - Holst
My Soul There Is a Country - Parry
The Spirit of England - Elgar
All People That on Earth Do Dwell - arr. Vaughan Williams
Review by Lawrence Tomlinson:
There was a large gathering in St Andrew’s Church, Penrith, on Saturday 17th Nov for a concert presented by the Penrith Singers to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, entitled ‘The Spirit of the Nation.’ How apt is the title, the music of the period being particularly evocative of the mood of the time, of the bravado of war turning to horror, and then to a hoped for peace.
A hush fell as the lights dimmed, except for those focussed on the Penrith Singers as, unaccompanied, they began a four part rendering of Douglas Guest’s short setting of Laurence Binyon’s familiar words ’They shall grow not old - - - We will remember them’. So the mood was set as Sheila Hadwin read Kathryn Tynan’s, ‘Joining the colours’: ‘There they go marching - - - The mothers sons - - - Foolish they go - - - singing they go - - ’.
John Ireland’s ‘Greater Love’, composed in 1912, held us all in rapt attention, the choir now accompanied by John Kitchen on the organ, and ‘Borders Brass’ made up of 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba and timpani, used sensitively and appropriately throughout the evening’s performance. The men of the choir began with ‘Many waters cannot quench love’, the full choir then increased the sense of urgency with a quickening of the tempo to declare ‘Love is strong as death’, but then an unaccompanied moment with ‘Greater love has no man than this - - - ‘. With the organ and brass building to a marvellous climax, a quiet ending followed completing a memorable performance. Our two soloists for the evening, Rachel Little (soprano) and Jonathan Millican (baritone) had small roles in this piece, but their opportunity would come later.
The atmosphere of reverence remained for George Thalben – Ball’s ‘Elegy in B flat’, with John Kitchen on the organ. The theme brought out simply, was increasingly embellished building to a splendid full organ, the coda then closing quietly using fragments of the theme.
There was a lightening of mood with Stanford’s five ‘Songs of the Fleet’. Jonathan Millican sang the verses of ‘Sailing at Dawn’, while the choir joined in the chorus, the accompaniment of organ and brass adding to that sense of ‘we gallant sailors’! That was confirmed when the various songs that followed varied from ‘sea shanty’ swing, to the night watch in the stillness of the sea, and closing more somberly with ‘Far off they served, but now their deed is done - - - they died for thee’, beautifully arranged with organ and brass accompanying – a fine ending. Jonathan Millican had steered his ship most ably!
Gustav Holst in the peace of 1919 set the words ‘Turn back O man, forswear thy foolish ways’ as a powerful hymn like setting over a repeated four note descending ostinato bass on organ. Horns were added as the ‘hymn’ moved on to trumpets in full cry as the choir sang in unison, ‘Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one’.
Hubert Parry died as the war ended, in 1918. Shortly before his death he set ‘My soul there is a country far beyond the stars’ for unaccompanied choir. Beautifully sung and I suspect a favourite of the choir. It was followed by a short ‘Elegie’ for organ, his final composition. And so to Elgar’s ‘The Spirit of England’, a setting of three contrasting poems of Laurence Binyon, composed during the war. The choir began in fine style with a soaring phrase for sopranos ‘Now in thy splendour go before us Spirit of England - - - ’, then taken up by Rachel Little, her voice crowning all. A contrast came with a reminder of the ‘Demon’s Chorus’ from ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to illustrate the ‘Vampire of Europe’s wasted will’, before a repeated haunting phrase accompanied Rachel and the choir as they sang of ‘divinely suffering man’, but then a repeat of that splendid opening could not be resisted!
Singing of the women in their ‘watch of solitude - - through their night of fears - - ‘ Rachel’s purity of voice conveyed the sense of foreboding as that haunting phrase returned. But then a slow, persistent marching rhythm accompanied the choir as ‘England mourns for her dead across the sea’. Then quicker, a rattling side drum ‘They fought, they were terrible’, but the slow rhythm returned sounding tired now ‘As the stars - - in our darkness, to the end, they remain’.
So Malcolm Boyd read Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, ‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing - - and horror drifted away’, and then the organ and brass in Vaughan Williams arrangement, played in fanfare as the audience stood and everyone burst out singing ‘All people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord’! A glorious finale!
With thanks to the choir with their committed singing throughout, our two soloists, ‘Borders Brass’, and how fortunate to have an organist of the high calibre of John Kitchen! But special thanks are reserved for Penrith Singers’ resident conductor, Edward Taylor, in his sheer professionalism, making the whole of the evenings performance possible. His direction shone through, in what was a fitting and memorable musical offering.