Songs of Nature and Devotion.

London Conchord Ensemble with Daniel Norman (tenor).

St Mary’s Church Iffley, September 28th 2013.

The London Conchord Ensemble, now in its tenth year, was founded by a group of principal players from several eminent orchestras. For this concert in Iffley, members convened by horn-player Nicholas Korth were joined by Oxford resident Daniel Norman.

The concert opened with Schubert’s posthumous, and little known, “Auf dem Strom” for tenor, horn and piano. This was finely played and sung. With the uncompromising acoustics of St Mary’s Church the sound balance could have been improved by placing the horn at the back rather than the front of the ensemble.

The second item in the programme, Nicholas Korth’s “War’s Embers” is a moving setting of four poems by Ivor Gurney, whose remarkable musical and poetical talents were permanently scarred by his experiences on the Western Front. The timbre of the oboe d’amore, with its inevitable echoes of the liturgical music of Bach, added gravity and dignity to an emotive performance of Korth’s reflective piano score and sensitive treatment of the text.

Reinecke was a prolific composer but overshadowed by more famous contemporaries. The Ensemble’s exemplary presentation of his trio for piano, oboe and horn op 188 was a reminder of his skill, inspiration, and wit.  Perhaps we shall hear more Reinecke as concert managers re-evaluate him as a worthy alternative to composers at risk of over-exposure.

Korth’s “Sabbaths” for tenor and piano is a setting of three poems by Wendell Berry, an environmentalist of mystical tendency resident in Kentucky.  The theme is of consenting resignation to the rhythms of nature, of death as well as life, but Korth brings out the underpinning sense of a fundamental rightness of things. This is complex music and while deeply moving even at first impact, deserves to be heard more than once for it to unfold.

Benjamin Britten’s rather tortured interpretation of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne suggests an incomplete appreciation of the text. Donne was a man of the Renaissance and the Reformation not a 14th century mystic. His poems are civilised and sophisticated, with a weft of his characteristic “metaphysical” conceits and paradoxes. He acknowledges the happy memories that can be enjoyed as well as regretted by a sinner. He does not disown the “profane mistresses” of his “idolatry” but grapples with the need to sublimate them into a greater love. Above all he was an Anglican to whom “reason” was God’s “viceroy”; here was dialectic, not anguish in a mediaeval darkness. But pace the words; Daniel Norman is a superb tenor and sang the music as the composer intended, achieving impressive dramatic impact through an extensive and faultless vocal range.  

The final work in this memorable concert was the premiere of Korth’s “Meditations” for tenor, oboe, horn and tambura, together with a keyboard doubling for a harp. The words are by Rudolf Steiner, much admired by Korth though not immediately comprehensible to the average programme reader. The beauty of the piece lies especially in its musical texture, in which the voices of horn, oboe, and singer move over and within a shimmering ground mist of sound from the harp and the primal drone of the tambura.

Michael Bourdeaux

After seventeen years, Canon Michael Bourdeaux is retiring as “Onlie Begetter”of the Iffley Music Society. The evening ended on a finely appropriate note when Nicholas Korth announced that he had formally dedicated  “Meditations” to Michael and, to enthusiastic applause, presented him with the autographed manuscript.

Jeremy Kelvin Smith