Of the two works in Derby Bach Choir's concert for Remembrance Day, conducted by Richard Roddis - Derby Cathedral, 11 November 2023 - Fauré's Requiem may have been a somewhat predictable choice, but was no less welcome for that. Jonathan Dove's For An Unknown Soldier, on the other hand, was probably new to most people, performers, audience and this reviewer alike, but it left an indelible impression.
The choir's hushed entry at the start of the Fauré felt exactly right, though the male voices, here and elsewhere, occasionally sounded a little under-powered. There was an aptly tentative feel to 'O Domine, Jesu Christe', with the nicely focused choral tone lightening into a radiant 'Amen'. The Sanctus had a buoyant sense of movement, though Derek Williams could have afforded to play out a little more in his violin obbligato. In the Agnus Dei, the magical harmonic side-step at 'Lux aeterna' was negotiated with a welcome lack of fuss. The 'Dies Irae' section of the Libera Me didn't overplay its hand, and a luminous account of the In Paradisum ended with a well-controlled fade-out. Matt Jordan's rather tenorish baritone was completely at home in his two solos, and Cathedral chorister Sophie Short sang the Pie Jesu with a touching sense of innocence. Derby Bach Orchestra's playing was supportive and perfectly scaled expressively.
While the dominant images of Fauré's Requiem are rest and light, there's no mistaking the savage denunciation at the heart of Jonathan Dove's piece, commissioned to mark the centenary of the start of World War I. The opening drum-beats came as a real shock - at least one member of the audience visibly jumped. Dove's aim was to trace one man's experience, and the effect on those waiting at home. He has set a selection of First World War poems by Wilfrid Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney and others, as well as quoting two traditional songs, sung by treble voices, here the well-trained Cathedral choristers, that take their ironic place in the work's emotional journey from initial enthusiasm to final disillusion.
Owen's '1914' sets the scene, with wintry images already casting a questioning chill over Harold Munro's 'The Poets are Waiting'. The words of Jessie Pope's 'The Call', and Charles Hamilton Sorley's 'All The Hills And Vales Along' are both open to ironic interpretation, underlined by tenor Nathan Vale's jaunty solo.
The hopelessness of Mary Gabrielle Collins' 'Women at Munition-Making' was well captured, with the Cathedral Choristers steering 'The British Grenadiers' well away from false jollity, as Dove pointedly pushes it into the background.
William Noel Hodgson's 'Before Action', and Helen Dircks' 'To You in France' focus for a moment on personal emotions, before Rosenberg's 'Dead Man's Dump' forms the work's big fresco-like centre-piece, a dance of death not sanitised in either Dove's setting or the performance.
The second traditional song, 'Tom's Gone to Hilo', is paired with Gurney's 'To His Love', re-focusing on individual reactions, touchingly conveyed, as they were in the following movement, Marian Allen's 'The Wind On The Downs'.
Owen's 'An Imperial Elegy' provides an epilogue, looking down compassionately on a shattered Europe. And as Nathan Vale's solo poignantly delivered the final lines, Dove joins Owen in bluntly refusing any sense of facile triumphalism, with a passing-bell ending the work in mid-air.
Dove's operatic experience is clearly behind the work's shaping, and expressive range, neither of which put a foot wrong. Richard Roddis steered it all with a firm grip on both the moment-to-moment shifts of tone and its overall direction. And the choir rose to the occasion magnificently.
It may be a bit glib to call the work a War Requiem for the 21st century, but it can certainly take the comparison. I have rarely felt so emotionally, even physically, drained after a concert.
Copyright © 30 November 2023