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Summer Evensong

by on 17 July 2018

Pimms, Power and Piety

Summer Full Choral Evensong

Music by Felix Mendelsshöhn, Henry Purcell, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Jehan Alain

St Mary’s Extended Parish Choir, St Mary’s Church, Hampton, 15th July

Review by Mark Aspen

A Broad Church. Now, there is a term that we often hear applied to the Church of England. However, pop along to St Mary’s at Hampton and you will find that in this case it applies to just one parish church.

The church buildings, together with Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare and Garrick’s Villa nearby, form part of a group of Grade 1 listed buildings. Particularly, with its association with Georgian royalty, St Mary’s Hampton is arguably the most historic of parish churches in the Area and certainly one of the most beautiful. Nevertheless, within all this tradition, St Mary’s late morning service each Sunday is an exuberant modern contemporary service of large and increasing popularity.

Baptism 15 July 2018 1

During this service, last Sunday morning, the 250-strong congregation processed from the church to the River Thames for the total-immersion baptisms of six adults and the christening of a baby. Back in the church, a service of joyful worship continued.

St Mary's ChoirThe measure of the breath of worship tradition at St Mary’s came later in the day, with a traditional Anglican evensong. Choir Director and Organist, David Pimm has gained a reputation amongst music lovers for his occasional series of sacred choral music, requiems and oratorios at St Mary’s. Last Sunday’s service was a traditional choral evensong, where “voices sounding together in harmony is heard at the ‘even’ point between the active day and restful night, allowing listeners time for restful contemplation”. It is a tradition that extends back to 1549 and, as the Vicar, Rev. Ben Lovell, reminded us, evensong has been described as “the jewel in the crown of Anglican worship”.

During the late afternoon, the music of worship had continued by ringing of the changes by an extended team from the Middlesex Bellringers on the St Mary’s Major of eight bells, cast by Thomas Mears in 1831. This formed a prelude to the St Mary’s Summer Evensong, the musical inspiration of which included choral works by Purcell, Stanford and Stainer, plus a number of powerful congregational hymns, parenthesised by remarkable organ solos.

The introductory organ piece was Felix Mendelsshöhn’s Sonata IV for Organ, the last of the six Organ Sonatas to be written in this Opus 65 series. Mendelsshöhn was greatly influenced in his church music by Bach, and the transcendental feel of his Sonata IV illustrates this well. The piece opens with a spritely allegro, which soon develops a more contemplative, pious mood, before returning to a quicker tempo and concluding with an impressively majestic crescendo. When playing the Sonatas, Mendelsshöhn himself demanded a well-pitched organ, with a good standard of touch from the pedalboard as well as the manuals. St Mary’s organ was a gift from King William IV to commemorate his coronation, and was built by J.C.Bishop in 1831. Not only is it a superb instrument, it underwent extensive restoration work in the summer of 2017. So Mendelsshöhn would have been very pleased to play at St Mary’s.

For the introit, the choir entered to the clear Baroque ringing tones of Henry Purcell’s Rejoice in the Lord Alway, singing an extract from this well-known Bell Anthem with its exhortation “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God”, thereby setting the theme of the service.

When the Royal College of Music was founded in 1882, Charles Villiers Stanford was not only one of its founding professors, but also one of the youngest. His pupils included Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Sadly, Stanford’s many orchestral and operatic works are now neglected, but he still remains one of Britain’s foremost church composers. Certainly, the choral works of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford are not neglected by Pimm and the St Mary’s choir.

Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus settings in C major (Op. 115) were part of the liturgical backbone of St Mary’s Summer Evensong.  In Magnificat, the canticle based on Mary’s praise to God following her visitation, Stanford points up the humility of Mary through subtle use of voice and volume. Phrase such as “the lowliness of His handmaiden” are taken pianissimo, whereas “He hath filled the hungry with good things”, as a soprano duet contrasts with the tenor and bass counter-concept of “and the rich He hath sent empty away”. The Nunc Dimittus, elderly Simeon’s touching reaction to seeing the infant Christ, in Stanford’s scoring is soft, peaceful and widely expressive. In the hands of St Mary’s choir, working largely as an ensemble, Stanford’s intentions were given clear emotional insight.

The richness of emotional expression in Stanford’s sacred choral works was amply demonstrated in the anthem, Glorious and Powerful God, one of the three motets of Opus 135 and the choral centre to Summer Evensong. The anthem is an acknowledgement of might of God and mankind’s relationship with God. The measured phrasing, “We understand Thy dwelling is on high, above the starry sky”, where sustained soprano notes almost paint a picture of the Milky Way, forms a vividly descriptive opening. Then God and mankind interact in the supplication to “show us Thy light”, a gentle and quiet episode, before the bold plea comes strongly in, “Arise, O Lord”. The conclusion is bold and decisive, “Thy name be blest, founder and foundation” of the world.

A brief mention must be made of the skill of the bible readers, Nigel Francis, who read from Job, and Didie Bucknall, whose reading from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans sounded just like she had taken Paul’s letter straight from the envelope and was letting us know what he had to say.

Pimm and the St Mary’s choir are exponents of the works of the Victorian composer, Sir John Stainer, and the choral part of the service concluded with Stainer’s Sevenfold Amen. The title speaks for itself, but the exploration of intonation and the complex interweaving of voices restates this time-immemorial single word as a certain conviction of truth and an affirmation of God’s promises.

Jehan Alain came from a family in Paris whose every member seemed to be associated with organs, as organists, organ composers, or organ builders. Jehan Alain was an organist and composer. He was killed in action, aged 29, in June 1940 and posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery. As a skilled motorcyclist in the French Army, he had been reconnoitring the enemy advance on Saumur, when he came across a platoon of German soldiers. He engaged them single-handed, armed only with his rifle, and killed sixteen of the enemy troops before being brought down himself.

Forming the final organ solo for Summer Evensong was Litanies. Composed three years before his death, it is probably one of the best-known of Alain’s works, but is recognised as being fiendishly difficult to play. The piece builds on an intricate melodic concept, which it repeatedly dismantles and reconstructs in a variety of moods, ranging from joyfully soft and reflective to apprehensively troubled and edgy. Alain explained his intent thus: “When the Christian soul in its distress finds no new words with which to implore God’s mercy, it repeats endlessly the same invocation with strong faith. Reason having attained its zenith, Faith alone reaches on high.” The motif itself goes through a remarkable progression, reappearing in overlapping forms. The work’s impressively complex conclusion is hugely powerful and finally resolves in a note-crammed cornucopia.

Nat at Organ 4A

 

The Bishop organ, in all its restored glory, was put through its acrobatic paces with great dexterity of hands and pedals by the outstanding visiting organist, Nat Keiller, an award-winning Royal College of Organists graduate, no stranger to the St Mary’s organ. Keiller’s virtuosity, a highlight of the Summer Evensong, was amazing and quite exhausting even just watching and listening.

What better way, then, to round off the evening by decamping into the churchyard for a civilised glass or two of Pimm’s and a cream tea with delicious home-made scones and jam, where we all enjoyed the evening sunshine of the beautiful world this side of the starry sky.

Mark Aspen
July 2018

Photography courtesy of Jenny Winterburn and Thomas Forsythe.

 

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