The first concert of the Oratorio Chorale’s 2011-2012 season promises a banner year for the auditioned chorus, founded in 1974.

The concert, held Sunday afternoon at Sacred Heart Church in Yarmouth, consisted of masterpieces of the British choral literature, from Edward Elgar to the present. All the works were very well sung, both a cappella and with excellent accompaniments by Ray Cornils on organ and piano.

Many of the works were both dense and complex, but the chorale sang them with clarity and sharp delineation of voices – and, mirabile dictu, with a powerful bass section, only two voices behind the sopranos and three behind the altos.

The program began with two settings by Edward Elgar (1857-1934): “The Fountain,” of a poem by Henry Vaughn, and a “Spanish Serenade,” of a poem by Longfellow. The first was sung a cappella, with a fine bass drone, and the second accompanied by a strong, Spanish-sounding piano.

Benjamin Britten’s “Five Flower Songs” were strikingly original, creating an atmosphere that complemented each text, rather than mimicking its images. My favorite was the setting of George Crabbe’s weird poem depicting the nasty and poisonous plants “of our town.” It was full of surprising sforzandi.

Britten lets himself go in the folk song, “The Ballad of Green Broom,” in which the lazy hero marries a “lady in bloom, full bloom.” The last stanza is accompanied by a vocal version of church bells. 

After another Elgar setting of Longfellow came an Anglican Requiem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983). Howells is little known today, but after hearing his music I agree with director Peter Frewen that it was the highlight of the program. Howells uses the voice as an orchestra and a palette, adding layer upon layer to the texture. There were passages in which the muted organ voices could not be distinguished from the human ones.  

After intermission, Cornils played a strong organ transcription of William Walton’s “Crown Imperial March,” written for the coronation of George V that never took place (Mrs. Simpson and all that).

It was followed by another series of songs, to five poems of Robert Bridges, by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). The settings included some fine writing for the voice and were very well sung, but they could not withstand comparison to Britten and Elgar. As if to emphasize the difference, the chorale next sang two more Elgar songs, “The Shower” by Henry Vaughan (1622-1695) and Byron’s “Deep in My Soul,” from “The Corsair.”

The program concluded with a powerful “Funeral Hymn for the Rig-Veda” by Gustave Holst, introduced by a march-like series of tremendous harmonic chords on the piano, which comments on the text throughout the piece.

The verses were translated from the ancient Sanskrit by Holst himself. The music is pure Holst, with all its virtues and defects, but it has about as much to do with the Rig-Veda as “Alice in Wonderland.”


Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]