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Reviews / Review: An overwhelming sense of peace

Shetland Choral Society's May Concert: 'a special, soothing, and uplifting evening' - Photo: Chris Brown

Shetland Choral Society – May Concert, 18 May 2012

I believe these are somewhat stressful times for Shetland residents. The voar has been delayed by weeks, if not months, and our winter has lasted almost since last summer.
Council cuts are looming. The most vulnerable in our society are apparently threatened. The community is divided over industrialising our landscape for ‘green’ energy.

How refreshing it is, and how fortunate we are therefore, to be able to enjoy music that can transcend all feelings of despondency and differences of opinion. It is notable that Gabriel Fauré, whose Requiem was played on Friday evening, wrote when a boycott of German music in France was proposed in the First World War: “[Music is] a language belonging to a country so far above all others that it is dragged down when it has to express feelings or individual traits that belong to any particular nation.”

Both Arthur Watt, introducing the concert, and conductor Nigel Hayward, reminded us of the recent sad and untimely death of Phil Taylor, who had been organist at St. Columba’s Church. The evening was dedicated to him. It was especially poignant to be reminded that a year ago Phil premiered his own Requiem in a concert that Arthur recalled as “the best I have ever attended”.

The first half of the concert was for choir accompanied by piano, beautifully played by Deidre Hayward, and consisted mostly of a cycle of eleven English, Scottish and Irish folk songs The Sprig of Thyme arranged by contemporary composer John Rutter. These were familiar to him as he grew up in post-second world war England, and he was successful in rescuing them from possible oblivion.

Ranging from The Bold Grenadier through W.B. Yeats’ Down by the Sally Gardens, the gentle Scottish lullaby Can Ye Sew Cushions? to the Burns song Afton Waters various sentiments are expressed, and were at times appropriately sung by different sections of the choir. Three songs about willow (including the Yeats one – Sally means Sallow) are about lost love or lost opportunity; no wonder we call the pendulous Babylon willow “Weeping”.

Incidentally, Afton Waters is also known as Sweet Afton, which was, from 1919 until last autumn, a famous Irish brand of cigarette produced to commemorate Robbie Burns, whose eldest sister lived and died in Dundalk. It was apparently much favoured by intellectuals on the Left Bank of Paris, before health warnings were introduced!

The piano accompaniments to The Cuckoo, a sad tale of betrayal of women by men, and, in stark contrast, to the robust and jovial men’s song The Miller of Dee were particularly striking.

The first half concluded with an early piece by Fauré, Cantique de Jean Racine, which won him first prize when he graduated from music school. The famous French author had translated the prayer attributed to St. Ambrose. The hymn’s graceful melody gave a taste of what was to come after the interval…

Fauré’s Requiem is the most well known of his works, and was composed around 1890. John Rutter had rediscovered the original setting for choir and chamber orchestra, so we had violas, solo violin, harp, organ, cellos, double bass – and French horn; the choir was enhanced with solos by soprano Fiona Spence and, as baritone, Lawrence Radley: the former was possibly very bravely contending with and overcoming a sore throat.

The Requiem lacks the drama and agony of Mozart’s, and uses a much more gentle approach, though in the Agnus Dei, the strings sound a sombre note, and the French horn is used to good effect in the Libera Me (equivalent to the Dies Irae). Interestingly Fauré, in contrast to Phil Taylor, who had composed his Requiem “to see if it could be done”, said of his, that he had done it “for fun”.

The orchestra was finely balanced, with a clear distinction between each and every instrument. The harp was a joy to hear, especially in the Sanctus, and in this and the In Paradisum, the solo violin, played by Annelie Irvine – who between times slipped in to sing with the sopranos – was simply exquisite.

The evening sun was pouring in the west windows of the kirk during the finale, adding to the overwhelming sense of peace in “eternal rest”.

It was good to see a wide range of ages in the audience – and to see new, and young faces in the choir – though one of its singular qualities is the inclusiveness and wide age range of its membership. Congratulations are due to the singers and players for their musicianship, and to Nigel Hayward for his undoubtedly skilled leadership. Thank you all for a special, soothing, and uplifting evening.

James Mackenzie

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