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John Foulds – A World Requiem

Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet – soprano
Catherine Wyn-Rogers – mezzo soprano
Stuart Skelton – tenor
Gerald Finley – baritone
Malcolm Hicks - organ

BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Chorus, Trinity Boys Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein [pictured]
Royal Albert Hall – 11 November 2007

My first reaction to this concert was one of thanks to the BBC for the giving an airing to a work of historical significance and massive proportions that has lain neglected for over eighty years.

John Foulds (1880-1939) is a British composer who is difficult to categorise.  Whilst many of his works were light theatre scores, popular in his day but rapidly out of fashion, his more serious pieces were forward looking - he experimented with quarter-tones before the turn of the century - and it is this part of his oeuvre which is currently enjoying something of a re-evaluation. 

Foulds began composing his World Requiem immediately after the conclusion of hostilities of World War I, and the work was ready for performance on Armistice Day 1923, when it played to capacity audiences in the Albert Hall.  It was successfully repeated for the next three years, and then dropped completely. 

More than 1,250 performers took part in the original concert, and whilst the forces employed this year were scaled down from those numbers, the orchestra spilled upwards from the normal  platform and the names of over 350 singers are listed in the programme.  Certainly an impressive wall of sound greeted the audience in the opening chorale movement, and the musical structures and harmonies in the succeeding Pronuntio and Confessio sections, in which Gerald Finley’s strong baritone provided the firm anchor, were of considerable interest, and the famous quarter-tones emerged.  

Next was a texturally rich Jubilatio counterpointing the boys’ choir with the full chorus, and I began to have very high hopes for the complete work.   Sadly these were dashed almost immediately in the next movement, entitled Audite, which calls on the nations of the world.  The baritone’s summons rang out in turn to the people of North, South, West and East, answered by brass fanfares from strategic points on the balcony, to which was added a little explanatory list of the nations involved.   It could just as easily have been a description of the corner plinths of the Albert Memorial, and I began to appreciate that whilst Fould’s score points to the future, his wife’s choice of text, (not the conventional requiem but a jumble of biblical quotation and paraphrase with “linking material of appropriate style”) is firmly rooted in the past. 

Further musical treats were to come with the mezzo solo Consolatio, sung with outgoing sincerity by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, and Stuart Shelton various solo’s as the voice of God.  (For some reason Foulds seems to lack finesse in his soprano solos, where Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet struggled valiantly to rise above the heavily orchestrated accompaniment.) Diction from soloists and choir was admirable but, as the work progressed, the mawkish sentimentality of the words became overwhelming, undermining and nullifying the music.  

The Albert Hall had done its best to spare us from them, by dimming the lights to a level that made it near impossible for the audience to follow the text printed in the programme!

Gradually an atmosphere of suppressed boredom became obvious, as feet were shuffled and watches furtively consulted... 

I am very glad to have had the chance to hear this monumental piece, but will shed no tears if it is not repeated in my lifetime. 

Serena Fenwick

see also Malcolm McDonald in Music Web The concert was being recorded for later release by Chandos [Editor]

and Grove Dictionary: "His major composition was A World Requiem, a rather tawdrily sentimental commemoration of the WW1 dead."