What the critics say

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This page contains reviews of live performances. Reviews of recordings can be found on individual recording pages, under Album details.

McCawley/RPO/Davan Wetton – Mozart and Haydn, 12 April 2016
Cadogan Hall

Reviewed by Boulezian

A wonderful concert, quite the tonic (if you will forgive the Classical pun, initially unintended). Hilary Davan Wetton and the RPO began with the Figaro Overture. ‘Authenticists’, although not the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, would probably have described it as ‘sedate’, but it was not; there was life to it and real symphonic stature too (lack of a development section notwithstanding). Crisp, warm, with nothing exaggerated to the accents, nor to anything else, it sounded just right. There was some gorgeous horn-playing too.

My only complaint about the next item was that we did not get to hear the entire KV 339 Vespers. No matter: we heard a lovely account of the most celebrated ‘number’, ‘Laudate Dominum’. Grace Davidson offered a clean, honest, stylishly ornamented performance of the soprano part, her bell-like voice ideally suited. Warm playing and choral singing from the City of London Choir were equally appreciated…

 

Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli received an equally fine performance. Its opening ‘Kyrie’ already seemed to speak both of the composer’s warm humanity and of his symphonic-developmental genius. Davidson’s soprano entry presented us with a change of tempo and mood, with all the virtues of her solo performance. Davan Wetton took the movement at quite a lick, yet without hurrying, let alone harrying, it. And how could one not fall in love, were one not already, with the composer of those responsorial (now soprano/alto to tenor/bass, now vice versa) eleisons? The ‘Gloria’ likewise had a proper sense of Haydn’s gloriously civilised eighteenth-century nature, with serious symphonic backbone lest one fall back on clichés of ‘Papa’. Davan Wetton’s choral experience was very clear – and welcome, as was the discipline of the singers themselves. The cello solo for the ‘Qui tollis’ section had its richness matched – sorry about another unintended pun – by that of the bass-baritone of Ashley Riches. Clarity and warmth were, again, shown to be anything but antithetical. There was a gloriously rich choral sound too on ‘suscipe’, followed by hushed by ‘deprecationem nostram’ premonitions of the Missa solemnis, also to be heard upon the imprecation ‘miserere nobis’. Highly convincingly, the ‘Quoniam’ section was taken at the tempo of a typical Haydn symphonic finale. Those ‘Amens’: again, how could one not adore them?

The opening of the ‘Credo’ was taken slower, the sturdiness of the Church as Rock of St Peter vividly communicated. Haydn’s neo-Baroque tendencies were here given their full due. The dark orchestral writing of the ‘Et incarnatus est’ section, not just its harmonies, but also its neo-Handelian writing for bassoon (I thought of the Witch of Endor), was splendidly conveyed. Mark Wilde’s Italianate manner and Anna Harvey’s richness of tone somehow both seemed to prepare the way for the firework-like ‘Et resurrexit’. The final fugue, quite rightly, returned to that opening sturdiness, again evoking Handel. Out of that, the ‘Amens’ sounded gorgeous: fruit that was almost Mozartian in its indecency.

Sweetness and vigour characterised the ‘Sanctus’, Wilde’s contribution finely balanced. The ‘Bendictus’ sounded both tragically imploring and imploringly tragic, prior to the balm of the major mode, properly post-Mozartian in its ambivalence. Musical values were never sacrificed to the merely ‘theatrical’ in the ‘Agnus Dei’, although the military music was played for everything it was worth. (Again, Haydn seemed to steal from the Beethovenian future.) Choral consolation was as real as it was lovable. We all need more Haydn in our lives; we all need more choral Haydn in our lives.

 

Hilary Davan Wetton conducts City of London Choir & Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall – Haydn’s Nelson Mass – Tom Poster plays Mozart K488

Monday, November 02, 2015 Cadogan Hall, London

Reviewed by Colin Anderson

‘A packed audience witnessed a packed platform. Hilary Davan Wetton – a Boult pupil and a conductor-prize-winner in 1967 – has a fifty-year career to look back on. But he is ploughing forward, for this concert marked the first of six collaborations between the City of London Choir (Davan Wetton its Artistic Director since 1989) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra that will embrace the Mass settings that Joseph Haydn composed towards the end of his life. Each programme includes a Mozart Piano Concerto.

The opener was Mozart’s Regina coeli, composed when he was in his early-twenties. Lasting about five minutes, the chorus is supplemented by four vocal soloists with an orchestra of strings (without violas), oboes, trumpets and timpani, and organ. The City of London Choir impressed immediately in this exuberant and festive setting…’

‘…The laurels of the evening went to the Haydn and its rendition (using Breitkopf’s 1804 publication, which has added woodwind parts, seemingly approved by Haydn). The ‘Nelson’ Mass was thought to reflect his victory over Napoleon in the 1798 Battle of the Nile, but this was disproved by Haydn guru H. C. Robbins Landon in that such news only reached Haydn after the Mass’s completion. Nevertheless the Admiral (and Lady Hamilton) did attend a performance of it in 1801.

The great and prolific composer, with so much written, had nothing to prove, and Haydn’s final works are invested with experience and candour, and no lessening of genius. The ‘Nelson’ Mass reflects the anxiety of war-torn times in patrician musical terms. Tension, yes, but joy too. This was a notable account, Davan Wetton the master of the music, energising it, caring for it while ensuring strength of purpose. Whatever was needed Davan Wetton judged it just-so, and with minimal pauses between sections an onward flow (but never rush or impatience) created an unbreakable experience.

The City of London Choir was outstanding – honed and committed – the RPO consistently neat and stylish. In the “Qui tollis” of the ‘Gloria’ Darren Jeffery was imposing, the chorus pared down to a beautifully judged mezza voce and John Roberts contributed a beguiling oboe solo. By contrast, the ‘Credo’ was sung (and swung) with true belief, and fugal writing was brought off with brisk clarity. Trumpets play a significant part in the scoring, adding exhilaration or sounding a warning, and (here from on-high) enhancing the dramatic interruption to the ‘Benedictus’. Of the other vocal soloists, Rachel Nicholls, with much to do, was fearless and uninhibited.

Conducted with conviction and insight, and unflappable co-ordination, Hilary Davan Wetton brought out the inspiring and consolatory nature of this music, the final words, “Dona nobis pacem” (Grant us peace), made uplifting. This was excellent. Amen!’

Full text available at: http://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_concert_review.php?id=13226

 

 

Finzi Requiem da Camera
Music in Time of War, St John’s Smith Square, November 2014

It is not so often that new or little-known items by the composer Gerald Finzi (1901-56) emerge. This is partly because he is admirably served by the Finzi Turst and its offshoot, the Finzi Friends. Finzi did stalwart work in retrieving and championing other composers, most notably Ivor Gurney, and he has himself been relatively well served and thoroughly championed. Even minor instrumental pieces have been brought in to the public domain.

There was surprise and delight, therefore, in discovering that the City of London Choir, under its conductor, Hilary Davan Wetton, has not only readdressed, but also recorded, Finzi’s early Requiem da Camera, a 20-minute work evolved scarcely five years after the Great War, but not heard till the 1990s.

It was inspired by the death in battle of Finzi’s beloved teacher Ernest Farrar (1885-1918), and into it Finzi injects the sadness of war, not by echoing Owen’s “monstrous anger of the guns”, but by implying war while underlining the rural idyll from which military service in the trenches separated the men.

A Prelude, darkly led in by cello, then sombre, searching clarinet and oboe, makes sly allusion to “Loveliest of Trees”, the Housman setting by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who was just five days younger than Farrar and was likewise killed in the war. (The latter’s The Banks of Green Willow, surprisingly dramatic in places, with finely worked crescendos from the London Mozart Players, and a beautifully managed final fade, had opened the concert.)

Then Finzi sets three poets.  He was an inspired chooser of words. All three passages are apt and relevant; and it is no surprise that Thomas Hardy, being the poet he most loved to set, is one of them:

“War’s annals will cloud into night Ere their story die” is Hardy’s conclusion to “Only a man harrowing clods”, a rustic poem whose plodding bass gives way to the briefest of cello solos and several passages that foreshadow his ravishing solo cantata Dies Natalis. Hardy knew about other wars, not just the First World War. John Masefield actually entitled one of his weightier poems, “August 1914”: folds, valley, blue hills, “a rout of rooks”, for which, in the longest movement, Finzi reserves canonic writing between upper and lower voices, and some especially fine a cappella detail, then exquisite woodwind for “the tilted stacks, the beasts in pen”, as the farmsteads feel the “rumours and alarms” of war: “And knew, as we know, that the message meant The breaking off of ties, the loss of friends: Death, like a miser, getting in his rent, And no new stones laid where the trackway ends.” As they sadly leave “the Well-loved Downs”, Finzi’s delightful, almost ironic string envoi ushers them to their likely end.

Cor anglais and bass clarinet both colour brief interludes within the final setting, of two stanzas by Wilfrid Gibson, which bewail “How they went Ungrudgingly, and spent Their all for us, loved too, the sun and rain…”, while we who are left “feel the heartbreak in the heart of things”.

Every small detail of Finzi’s writing – woodwind, chuntering horn, or the sad echo in a lulling, unfife-like flute of the Last Post – tells a story.

This was a noble performance that captured the yearning, mixed with enchantment, of this rare work: not quite mature in design, but absorbing in its honesty. We owe this valuable new edition of the whole work, heard also on disc with Vaughan Williams and Gurney (Naxos 8.573426; the City of London Choir has already recorded Finzi’s Christmas cantata In Terra Pax on 8.572102), to the editor Christian Alexander.

Church Times December 2014

 

Finzi Requiem da Camera  (**UK premiere of new completion by Christian Alexander**)
Dorchester Abbey, English Music Festival, May 2014

‘It was Farrar, Lewisham-born and later the Harrogate-based teacher of Gerald Finzi, killed near Le Cateau two months before the Armistice, to whom Finzi dedicated his post-war indictment – but also commemoration – of conflict, Requiem da Camera (“War’s annals will cloud into night Ere their story die”), roughly coinciding with Vaughan Williams’s elegiac Third Symphony. The City of London Choir under Hilary Davan Wetton gave a stirring performance of the Finzi as a culmination to that evening’s richly rewarding concert.’ Church Times

John Gardner Stabat Mater; Britten Rejoice in the Lamb;
Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs
Dorchester Abbey, English Music Festival, May 2013

‘Davan Wetton’s well-drilled City of London Choir, stalwarts of the festival, worked wonders with the late John Gardner’s (1917-2011) Stabat Mater – especially haunting for the soprano Lucy Hall’s Ariel-like high tessitura and dwelling on the agonised cry “Filius”; for the expressive choir words; and for the lucid organ registrations from Lichfield Cathedral’s former organist Philip Scriven… The highlight of the whole extended weekend, for me – though there was much I did not hear – was a performance of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, his Christopher Smart cantata commissioned for St Matthew’s, Northampton. The voice of the 23-year-old tenor Edward Leach (“For the flowers are peculiarly The Poetry of Christ”) shone through like a beacon; and Vaughan Williams’s George Herbert setting, Five Mystical Songs, in which the young baritone Thomas Humphreys touched nerves one would associate with a John Shirley-Quirk or a Bryn Terfel. With such talent feeding through, and artists of such ravishing quality, what need the English Music Festival, or the English music scene, fear?’ Church Times

Holst’s Two Psalms and The Coming of Christ with the London Mozart Players, St John’s Smith Square, November 2010

‘… the performers, the youthful City of London Choir under its director Hilary Davan Wetton (himself a long-standing champion of Holst’s work) proved that magic could be kindled there…’  BBC Music Magazine blog 

‘…The City of London Choir, under the energetic leadership of Hilary Davan Wetton, maintains close links to the English Music Festival (based in Dorchester on Thames); and the two share a laudable commitment to ensuring that less well known English repertoire, especially of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is given a chance to be heard, and now also recorded… In the late “Host of Heaven” section, the SATB choir came alive, prising out the colour from “the first blackbird’s cry Come, with the dripping of the new-shaken From twigs where yellowing leaves and reddening berries lie”, and achieving a perfectly timed, stilled effect from the quizzical, almost Eliot-like “and how night goes, but, on a sudden, is not, even… The finest, subtlest singing from the City of London Choir came at the very start: Holst’s setting of a 17th-century paraphrase of Psalm 86, in which the unison pianissimo lead-in by altos and basses was magical, and the ensuing tenor solo, first unaccompanied and then sus­tained by female voices, was won­der­fully atmospheric. The choral tutti that concluded was likewise uplifting and first-rate…’  Church Times

‘‘The first is mystical and the second exuberant, and the choir responded to both with, by turns, singing of quiet ecstasy and jubilant exuberance. In both Holst works soloists from the chorus gave solid and distinguished performances… Quite why this work has languished in obscurity for so long is a mystery to me for it is very approachable and makes an appealing addition to the few great works which are heard every Christmas. The City of London Choir did Holst proud tonight, with their vibrant advocacy which conveyed their obvious delight in the music … an occasion to be relished and the City of London Choir is to be applauded – as it was, for over 2 minutes! – for giving us this opportunity to hear this wonderful music.’ MusicWeb International 

Of Britten’s St Nicolas cantata, St John’s Smith Square, November 2010

‘the City of London Choir’s contri­bu­­tions were vital and galvanised, and the work came over particularly well as a vivid dramatic entity, not least in the vigorous storm scene and at Nicolas’s farewell, touchingly offset by the Nunc Dimittis.’  Church Times 

‘…Using all the forces in the hall, the four trebles, as the baby Nicholas and the Pickled Boys were excellent, the small, but significant, contribution from the St Paul’s Girls School Chamber Choir, placed in the gallery, was most welcome, and with Justin Lavender a fine soloist, totally in command of the music, and delivering a muscular and insightful account of his part… Davan Wetton directed a fine performance which raised the work onto a higher plain than that on which it actually resides. But the evening was most memorable for the fine singing of the City of London Choir, and full praise to them and their director Hilary Davan Wetton for such an inspired programme…’ MusicWeb International

Reviewing Beethoven’s Der Glorreiche Augenblick at the Barbican with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, March 2010

‘In this extremely rare performance, the City of London Choir, under conductor Hilary Davan Wetton, sang a partial rewrite by the German conductor Hermann Scherchen… the best of the 40-minute piece expresses the same kind of humane optimism Beethoven would fully explore in his Ninth Symphony. The final section, in which a children’s choir and Turkish instruments add to the general rejoicing, achieves a genuine sense of celebration. The City of London Choir and the Royal Philharmonic were on impressive form throughout.’ The Guardian 

Reviewing Vaughan Williams’s Hodie and Finzi’s In Terra Pax at the Barbican with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, November 2008

‘Singing with consoling warmth here, the choir found full-throated power where needed in Hodie… Marshalling the Royal Philharmonic, the boys of Westminster Under School and a trio of soloists along with his well-blended choir, Hilary Davan Wetton was the commanding conductor. I don’t expect to hear better Christmas music this season.’  Sunday Telegraph 

Reviewing Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the London Mozart Players and narrator Timothy West, May 2008

‘the singers… supplied an idyllic soundscape, and the ripe-toned speaker etched in all the poetic detail. Conducted with nuance by Hilary Davan Wetton, this programme (with the London Mozart Players) also featured the violinist So-Ock Kim in Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, a poised performance that took gentle flight, plus rare choral treasures by Holst and Bliss.’  Sunday Telegraph 

Of Arthur Bliss’s rarely heard Pastoral: Lie Strewn the White Flocks at St John’s Smith Square, March 2007

‘…the conductor Hilary Davan Wetton unlocked its elusive beauty. The choir sang with well-blended tone throughout, most memorably in ‘The Naiads’ Music’, where the women’s voices had gossamer lightness …another of the City of London Choir’s enterprising programmes.’ Sunday Telegraph 

Carol concert, December 2007

A carol concert with bells on, this annual appearance [at the Queen Elizabeth Hall] by the City of London Choir – one of the country’s leading amateur outfits – does away with stiff British reserve.’ The Guardian 

Reviewing a concert given by the choir with Milton Keynes City Orchestra and narrator Jeremy Irons for the inaugural English Music Festival in Dorchester Abbey, October 2006

The orchestra was joined by the excellent City of London Choir for the two works that framed the concert [Holst’s Two Psalms and Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy]. The orchestra, chorus and narrator all caught the melancholic mood of the piece… The choir and orchestra excelled under the adroit direction of Davan Wetton. Together, they were able to demonstrate what great English musical treasures have been allowed to gather dust, and to show what a great shame it is that they have been allowed to do so. The Independent 

Of the choir’s performance of Janácek’s Otce nás at St John’s Smith Square, April 2006

‘this mosaic-like score came across with flow and propulsion thanks to the sympathetic conducting of Hilary Davan Wetton. The choral singing was richly detailed, and softly floated textures contrasted effectively with episodes of full-voiced power.’ Sunday Telegraph 

Of Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine and Requiem at St John’s Smith Square, April 2006

‘Pleasure is exactly what this performance generated.’ Sunday Telegraph 

Of a performance of Haydn’s Mass in Time of War and Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Barbican, November 2006

‘the choir’s handling of the Vaughan Williams, the difficult chromatic lines tackled with secure intonation and clear, confident articulation, was an achievement of which it can be proud.’ The Guardian 

Of Bach’s St John Passion at St John’s Smith Square, March 2003

‘This performance of the St. John Passion certainly stood out, with the City of London Choir confirming its reputation as a leader among non-professional choruses. Next season sees the choir’s fortieth anniversary, but few of its members would have been born when the group was founded: the choir sings with fresh vitality. Under the baton of its music director, Hilary Davan Wetton, the opening chorus rolled out majestically, yet there was also a lightness of attack essential in this music. Though the choir is hardly small, it can sing with soft control. There was a strong sense of performance pleasure here, making for musical results a far cry from those rooted in maudlin routine. Such a lively, responsive chorus is well suited to this work, characterised as it is by dramatic interventions. The restrained drama of the rush to Golgotha, where the chorus joins the bass soloist, was superbly managed. And the consoling final chorus was sung with expressive warmth.’ The Times