For the Fallen
Marking the centenary of the November 1918 Armistice, these two discs from Signum present two very different interpretations of choral music from the First World War. The only piece common to both is Stanford’s For lo! I raise up, delivered with measured control by Charles Harrison and his Chichester Cathedral Choir, and with great dramatic flair by Matthew Altham’s Pegasus singers.
High drama is very much to the fore in the Pegasus disc, the programme ranging beyond the deep trenches of the English cathedral repertory into contemporaneous works from Reger, Ravel, Rachmaninov and Mahler. And before anyone points out that Mahler had died four years before the First World War, or that this arrangement of one of his Rückert Lieder was made by Clytus Gottwald, born 11 years after the war ended, let me point them in the direction of Pegasus chairman, Samir Savant, who writes that Mahler’s music mirrors ‘the decadence and self-absorption of the last years of the Austro Hungarian empire’.
It is not through choice of music that Pegasus provide dramatic impact but through Altham’s fervent direction. Making no concessions to the small-scale nature of the programme, he throws every emotional weapon in his armoury at the music, giving us oozing pathos in Douglas Guest’s heartfelt if sentimental setting of Laurence Binyon’s iconic text, profound introspection in Reger’s Nachtlied and nerve-shattering explosiveness at the close of Holst’s Nunc dimittis.
His singers respond with alacrity, even to the extent of over-stretching themselves vocally. George Dyson’s To Music reveals their beautifully blended tone; but, in addition to an unnerving hootiness of tone in Ravel’s ‘Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis’, the top notes of the Mahler have an ugly edge to them, made all the more ugly by being juxtaposed above such gorgeous choral tone.
If Pegasus are unafraid to go over the top in the cause of the music’s drama, Chichester Cathedral Choir are more restrained, keeping emotional heads down and reserving dramatic assaults for the occasional big moments – as in Ireland’s Greater love – where these singers lack for nothing in bravery. As with the Pegasus disc, not everything on the Chichester disc belongs to the First World War; but Peter Aston’s setting of famous lines from Pericles’ funeral oration at the time of the Peloponnesian War fits in well not only because of its references to the Last Post but because of its mood of prayerful introspection.
Chichester Cathedral Choir are relative strangers to commercial CD, so this disc provides a welcome opportunity for the outside world to hear them in action. And with such understated yet beautifully moulded singing as they give us in Bainton’s And I saw a new heaven and Parry’s Crossing the Bar one can only hope for more.
The disc includes a couple of organ solos played by Harrison himself. Most impressive of these is his flamboyant performance of the last movement (appropriately subtitled ‘Verdun’) of Stanford’s Second Organ Sonata. The explosive combination of virtuoso flares and shards of the Marseillaise effectively counterbalance the disc’s overriding atmosphere of prayerful restraint.