Thursday 7 July 2011

Revelation in Tewkesbury

So obvious, but so lucid, too: hearing Britten's Missa Brevis live for the first time in Tewkesbury Abbey last Saturday clarified all that had felt so wrong with Two Boys at ENO - in short, absence of really strong, dramatic and striking musical shapes. Here, in the first twenty seconds, was an idea with all the force of genius: an idea, what's more, backed up by the notion that the treble world isn't necessarily one of innocence and purity.

Britten was writing in 1959 for George Malcolm's Westminster Cathedral Choir, one of the first to break with the white treble sound of the English tradition. But he was also composing, of course, from his own unique experience of innocence corrupted, the canker in the rose. Peter Evans notes how he had long been treating boys' voices as 'incisive wind instruments'. Those first 'Kyries' are tumultuous and impassioned; the most memorable idea of all, the Sanctus, turns out to be a twelve note row constructed from two overlapping phrases.

Like Berg and the late Shostakovich - Stravinsky, too, up to a point - Britten could construct memorable ideas from the iron rule of dodecaphony (I recently used Aschenbach's 'My mind beats on' at the start of Death in Venice and phrases from Shostakovich's nearly-contemporary Fifteenth Symphony to show a group of Birkbeck opera-course students how. And incurred a complaint or two for dealing with a 'difficult' subject, more than offset by the eulogies of those who thought they couldn't understand the issue but discovered that they did). And the Missa Brevis, in its own modest way, is as much a work of genius as any of the larger-scale opuses.

In the context of the concert, this and A Ceremony of Carols bookended a relatively anodyne aren't-trebles-sweet programme of Gabriel Jackson, Ireland, Parry and Hadley (though the Schubert Psalm 23 was a gem, too). I'd like to hear much more of the Tewkesbury Schola Cantorum, whose boys shared Saturday's Cheltenham Festival event with their counterparts from Gloucester Cathedral (following photo by Becky Matthews).

The Tewkesbury set-up seems a remarkable one, and it embraces perhaps the most extraordinary treble voice I've heard. We thought so immediately, and I wondered whether this boy was going in for the BBC Chorister of the Year award. It turned out that young Laurence Kilsby had already won it, back in 2009. Here's an incredibly strong voice which could teach tweety-pie sopranos a thing or two.

Shame all the clips on YouTube are filmed so badly, but if you want to get an idea of the unique sound, take a look at the Brahms 'Ihr hab nun Traurigkeit'. I'm going to get hold of the Stanford in G recording despite traumatic memories (on one of our All Saints Banstead cathedral courses - Gloucester, it may have been - I was running a sore throat, and taken off the big solo that launches the Magnificat. My replacement? One prettier than I, a certain Rolf Hind...)

Still didn't have enough time to absorb the wonders of Tewkesbury Abbey, though the town was looking splendid with all its handsome flags out in anticipation of the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury (see Richard III). The whole place smacks more to me of the remoteness of beloved Herefordshire than the commutable smugness of Gloucestershire, within whose borders it just stands. The battle's importance, and the flood-hazards all too vividly activated a couple of summers back, have kept the land behind the Abbey where it took place fresh as 'meadows green with daisies pied'.

The essence of the Abbey is its massy Norman tower

along with the great recessed arch of the West Front, its six roll mouldings encasing a big window of 1686.

Quite a bit of the seemingly 15th century vaulting is pastiche from the Gilbert Scott restoration, if I understand my Pevsner aright, though the fanning-out from the original south door works well, I reckon.

We had to leave double-quick as we were being driven back to Cheltenham by busy-brilliant Meurig Bowen, who's given such a kick to this year's Festival (report due for The Arts Desk on Sunday), so there was only a short time to whizz round the ambulatory and inspect some of the best monuments in the country. Most extraordinary is the decaying, vermin-ridden body of the misnamed Wakeman Cenotaph; most artistic is the two-storey Beauchamp Chapel with traces of colour on its Tudor vaulting. I can't wait to return and take a proper look.


Susan Scheid said...

I see I have fallen behind again (this is my lot) in reading, but am pleased to have two more beautiful posts from you before heading off to the Adirondacks for a few days. I love this line: "the notion that the treble world isn't necessarily one of innocence and purity."

David said...

Happy Adirondacking! Beautiful big country, wish I knew it better tho' the glimpses I had on Bard trips made me realise the hills - and the big, big Hudson - are on a scale unknown to Blighty.

David Damant said...

The remark about the super treble reminds me of the performance of Dido and Aeneas that I put on at my club (with Jean Rigby as Dido). We engaged the number one treble from the Westminster Abbey Choir to sing Hecate's trusty elf, in form of Mercury himself. But in rehearsals he would NOT address his remarks to Aeneas, rather he looked always at the producer - as he would in the Abbey look at the choirmaster. We eventually got it right.