It’s a choral work which rages against the madness of war and prays for peace; has a soprano soaring above intoning a sacred Latin text while a down-to-earth baritone sings a setting of anti-war poetry in English, lamenting the death of an enemy soldier.
Sounds familiar? Yes, but it’s not Britten’s War Requiem but Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem from 25 years earlier. The poetry is by Walt Whitman not Wilfred Owen and is about the American Civil War, but the sentiment and its musical expression is similar: Thomas Guthrie’s singing was forthright but restrained.
In an inspired touch the composer used the first violin, winningly played by the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra’s guest leader Cristinel Băcanu, to duet with the baritone. The orchestra’s brass section relished the second movement’s raucous battle scene. Hannah Grove’s soprano was vocal balm in the opening and closing prayer, with excellent support from the choir under conductor Adrian Lucas.
The choir’s sopranos captured the ethereal, unearthly quality Holst was seeking in The Hymn of Jesus while the unison forces were also impressive. Elgar’s King Arthur Suite began life in 1922 as short cues, using just thirteen players, to accompany a stage drama.
Robert Kay’s arrangement for full orchestra of five pieces was a very enjoyable discovery. One wishes Elgar had transformed the material into a symphony or a tone-poem like Falstaff. The Banqueting Scene was a swashbuckler in the Korngold Hollywood movie mould, while the harmonies in Elaine made her sound intriguingly like Wagner’s Isolde.