Elgar’s ‘War Requiem’

An unfairly neglected Elgar masterpiece, The Spirit of England, is on the programme at the next concert in the Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall on the 4th of November.

Why the work occupies peripheral status in the composer’s output is something of a mystery.

First performed complete in 1917, hence written during the First World War which it reflects, it has been suggested that the reason for its scarcity of outings is that it is only really suitable for performance around Remembrance weekend – rubbish!

You might as well say that about Britten’s War Requiem, a soubriquet that has attached itself to Elgar’s work, although its starting point is completely different.

Coincidentally or not, however, the performance in Sheffield takes place a week before it!

A three-movement work for soprano, chorus and orchestra, each is a setting of a poem from Laurence Binyon’s anthology of verse The Winnowing Fan published in late 1914: ‘The Fourth of August’, ‘To Women’ and ‘For the Fallen’.

The first depicts the optimism and sense of adventure as Britons sailed to Europe at the outset of the war. The second, the horrors of the very quick stark reality and heavy loss of life and the third, the tragic realism of the need for sacrifice if victory is to be achieved.

The second and third movements were premiered in May 1916, but Elgar was in a quandary over the first. Some of Binyon’s words were harsh towards the German nation and he felt a lasting debt of thanks towards it for championing his earlier works.

Realising that it had changed beyond redemption as he lived through the conflict, he eventually resolved his dilemma by quoting music from the Demon’s Chorus in The Dream of Gerontius.

Summed up, after the patriotic strains of the first movement, Elgar’s work captures the desolation and sorrow around him with a fair amount of poignancy, especially in the second movement, without becoming mawkish and with often subtle, under-appreciated inspiration.

He abridged and reworked the last movement for chorus and orchestra as With Proud Thanksgiving for the unveiling of the cenotaph in London in 1920, but it was not used.

Three other highly attractive works make up the concert given by the Hallé, Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and regularly raved about soprano Elizabeth Atherton who also gets to sing Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, penned 30 years after the Elgar!

Should you not know it, it’s an evocative setting of excerpts from James Agee’s childhood memories in a short prose poem in Knoxville, Tennessee seen through the eyes of a child.

Barber described it as a “lyric rhapsody,” which is about right!

The chorus, meanwhile, has Vaughan Williams’ magnificent setting of Walt Whitman’s Toward the Unknown Region to itself with the Hallé and conductor James Burton who begin the concert with Arnold Bax’s Cornish symphonic poem Tintagel.

With good reason, the composer’s most regularly heard work, but it does rather cast a dense shadow over equally fine, ignored pieces that he wrote.


‘I have a song to sing…’

Some celebrated names and a number approaching such status are due in Sheffield over three days, two heavily packed, in November.

The occasion is a Song-Makers Festival, 11th –13th of November, as part of the University of Sheffield Concert Season, and is as compelling as the main body of the series of concerts in it.

Renowned baritone Roderick Williams begins the weekend with pianist Christopher Glynn on the 11th with a sold out performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at the Crucible Studio, one of two events in association with Music in the Round.

Moving on to the next day, the second one at Firth Hall is an all-embracing exploration of German song, including a masterclass with university students (10am –3.30pm).

Highly rated young mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper, one of the UK’s best younger generation piano accompanists, are at Upper Chapel (2 –3pm) with Nights Not Spent Alone, a cycle of three Edna St Vincent Millay poems written for her by Jonathan Dove.

Making up the programme are pieces of similar nature by Fauré: Avant que tu ne t’en ailles (La Bonne Chanson); Debussy: Trois Chansons de Bilitis; Vaughan Williams: Tired (Four Last Songs); Barber: Nocturne (Four Songs Op 13); and Sondheim: Could I Leave You? from Follies.

Shostakovich is at the same venue (4 –5pm) when Russian song specialist, soprano Joan Rodgers, performs his Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok with the Phoenix Piano Trio, which also offers the composer’s Second Piano Trio.

The trio’s pianist is Sholto Kynoch, founder and director of the Oxford Lieder Festival.

Moving to Firth Hall (7 –8pm) with Simon Lepper we have Messiaen, his Andean-flavoured song cycle Harawi for dramatic soprano and piano from Gweneth-Ann Rand.

“Why don’t we hear more of this accomplished soprano?” asked the Daily Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen last year!

Another British-born soprano we seem certain to hear more of, Raphaela Papadakis, moves in with Sholto Kynoch (9 –10pm) and four of Schoenberg’s eight humorous Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs) from 1901 – guaranteed to drown misconceptions of him!

There are also similarly themed outings for pieces by Poulenc (three), Satie (two), including the fabulous La Diva de l’Empire, Joseph Marx (four) and Lehár – the saucy Meine Lippen from Giuditta!

And so to the 13th and still at Firth Hall where a tenor making a name for himself, Daniel Norman, performs Vaughan Williams’ Housman cycle On Wenlock Edge with Sholto Kynoch and the Gildas Quartet (12.30 –1.30pm).

There has to be something else, to be confirmed – Britten’s Winter Words, in Norman’s repertoire, would be an ideal foil! (This piece will be updated when we know!).

Graham Johnson, no less, the doyen of British piano accompanists, puts an appearance in with gifted younger generation baritone Benedict Nelson (2.30-3.30pm) for a programme entitled ‘Odysseus’ prompted by Homer’s Odyssey.

Performed in Harrogate in July, there is nothing particularly Greek about it with Ulysses’ epic journey reflected in songs by Schubert (eight), Zemlinksy, Clara and Robert Schumann, and Fauré (two).

Raphaela Papadakis returns with the Gildas Quartet (4.30 –5.30pm) for the final recital and Schumann’s six songs Op 107, the posthumous five Ophelia Songs by Brahms and Mendelssohn arranged for soprano and string quartet by Aribert Reimann.

The Mendelssohn is Oder soll es tod bedeuten, eight Heine settings, including On Wings of Song, knitted together with short Reimann-composed instrumental bridge material.

They might need his similar exercise on Schubert’s three Mignon songs to make up the time!

How Bach’s St John Passion (7.30pm), across the road from Firth Hall in the Octagon Centre, with massed Sheffield choirs and English Touring Opera involvement comes mark the end of the festival is obscure.

University of Sheffield Concert Season

Forged in Sheffield; Global Soundtracks; Sound Laboratory; Song-Makers – four headings you see a lot of looking at what is on offer in the new University of Sheffield Concert Season at Firth Hall!

It has certainly been planned with considerable imagination, all the concerts/ events in it falling under one of the headings with two notable exceptions.

One is a screening of a 1928 silent film classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (22nd November) with a live soundtrack provided by the renowned Orlando Consort performing French vocal music from the 15th century.

The other enticing prospect is A Child’s Christmas in Wales (twice, 18th December), the anecdotal prose poem by Dylan Thomas delivered by Gruffudd Glyn, seen in such films as he Theory of Everything,  with appropriate seasonal music arranged for and played by the Ligeti Quartet.

Musing on the categorised concerts in the season up to the end of 2016, the ‘Sound Laboratory’ series, ostensibly concentrating on contemporary music, features much Messiaen.

Proceedings can be said to have got off to a stuttering start on the 21st of September with the composer’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux in a presentation involving visuals and an ornithologist.

Two Global Soundtrack concerts this month (October) and the season begins in earnest on the 1st of November with Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus from the highly rated young pianist Cordelia Williams who has made a speciality out of playing it.

Here, the 20 ‘contemplations’ are each preceded or followed by words mirroring them written by poet Michael Symmons Roberts who recites them.

A third Messiaen keyboard cycle (9th December), La Nativité du Seigneur, is performed at Sheffield Cathedral by the cathedral’s acting director of music Joshua Hales as part of the season.

The Ligeti Quartet (15th November) is in slightly more contemporaneous mode with a programme of Kurtág, Webern, Ligeti, Stravinsky and Bartók (Fifth Quartet), plus a new work by Elliot Galvin.

A Sound Junction weekend featuring new electroacoustic works (25th –27th November) is definitely in contemporary realms, as should be a New Music Ensemble concert (29th November) with Peter Maxwell Davies remembered following his death in March.

‘Global Soundtracks’ focuses on world/ folk music with evenings featuring Kathryn Tickell (18th October), Kefaya (25th October), Karine Polwart (5th November), Chango Spasiuk (10th November), Sarah Jarosz (18th November) and Martin Simpson (13th December).

Back on home territory, ‘Forged in Sheffield’ puts the spotlight on concerts given by the Department of Music’s excellent in-house ensembles and orchestras, the first to appear being the award-winning University Wind Orchestra (4th December).

The Symphony Orchestra strikes up with Borodin, Holst and Stravinsky (11th December) and, in between (6th December), there is an evening of Alan Jay Lerner songs written with composers other than Frederick Loewe, courtesy of Dominic McHugh and Matthew Malone – who else?

‘Song-Makers’ is a crammed weekend festival of song (11th –13th November) and demands a separate piece – see ‘I have a song to sing…’