‘Thurifer’ enjoys some highlights of the season
I dreamed a dream
One of the highlights of my year was a revelatory performance of ‘The Dream of Gerontius.’ Conducted by Sir Mark Elder – surely our finest Elgarian – the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the Guildhall School Singers, were on top form. The brilliance of the LSO’s sound, and the power and delicacy of the singers, were overwhelming. Sir Mark’s reading revealed aspects of the score that I had never understood: it made complete sense of that split-second vision of God, and Gerontius’ response ‘Take me away.’ Alice Coote and Gerald Finley were, as ever, excellent; but the revelation was Allan Clayton’s Gerontius. The members of the Orchestra were in white tie, with black tie for the Chorus; but Clayton was in a black, open-necked shirt. He looked like a hipster, with his beard and hair fashionably unkempt. None of that mattered. His singing was radiant, ardent, moving, and touching in equal measure. He fully deserved the roar of approval from a full house.
I was brought up on Sir John Barbirolli’s recording. Richard Lewis brought an unsurpassed spiritual dimension to the part, Kim Borg was a sonorous priest and Angel of the Agony, and Janet Baker was nonpareil as the Angel. She sang the role in the Memorial Concert after Barbirolli’s death, and at the words ‘There was a mortal, who is now above in the mid-glory’ she sang through tears. Her great predecessor Kathleen Ferrier, still loved and listened to over sixty years after her cruelly premature death, once similarly broke down at the end of a performance of ‘Das Lied von der Erde.’ She apologised to the conductor, Bruno Walter, who said ‘My dear Miss Ferrier, if we had been all as great artists as you, we should all have wept – orchestra, audience, myself – we should all have wept.’ After her death he said that ‘the greatest thing in music in my life has been to know Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order.’
The season of Catholic Societies’ Festivals, Patronal Festivals, and Feasts of Title is coming to an end for another year. The first Saturday in May saw the Society of Mary follow its traditional pattern: Mass at St Silas, Kentish Town; procession to Holy Trinity, Haverstock Hill; AGM; Sermon (Fr Philip Barnes this year) and Vespers. There are no longer enough Saturdays in the season to avoid clashes. The last weekend in May was packed: the launch of the Society in the diocese of Southwark; the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament’s Festival at St Alban’s, Holborn; the Society of King Charles the Martyr’s celebration of Restoration Day at St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge; Corpus Christi celebrations such as those at St Andrew’s, Holborn (Fulham HQ) combined with St Dunstan-in-the-West; and the National Pilgrimage to Walsingham ( at which Fr Andrew Mitcham preached). Further celebrations as the summer drew on included those for the Queen’s 90th Birthday (with a particularly full and patriotic programme at St Stephen’s, Lewisham); the Society for the Maintenance of the Faith’s Festival at St Agnes’, Kennington (newly under SMF patronage); and St Augustine’s, Kilburn. Many others (with a tip of the biretta to the pilgrimage to the Holy Well of Thornton-in-Craven, to represent the world outside London) jostled on other days, with Holy Redeemer Day at Clerkenwell still to come. Rich spiritual fare and an indication of the strength of the Catholic witness in the Church of England.
Perhaps the palme d’or this year should go to the Guild Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West. This year an ordered liturgy and fine sermon – celebrated and preached by the Guild Chaplain, Fr Barry Orford – was enhanced by a world premiere of Swedish composer Marten Jansson’s Missa Popularis: a large, generous, and lyrical setting based on Swedish folk tunes with echoes of Gregorian chant, with full orchestra. Sung by Chantage, an excellent choir (BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year in 2006) under the direction of James Davey, it proved an unexpected and richly satisfying enhancement to the celebration.
Getting the elbow
Under its Cardinal-Rector, Fr Philip Warner, St Magnus the Martyr on old London Bridge has emerged over the past decade with a distinctive liturgical and musical aesthetic, and is now the venue for several celebrations. As well as its own Patronal Festival and as host to other groups and societies, it notably received the Relic of St Thomas Becket at the end of May. Brought from Esztergom, seat of the Metropolitan and Primatial See of Hungary, the relic (his elbow) was on pilgrimage with stations at Westminster Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, and Canterbury Cathedral. The pilgrimage was under the patronage of the President of Hungary, and was a joint initiative between the Hungarian Embassy in London together with the Roman Catholic Church of England & Wales, and the Church of England. As a chapel in the martyr’s honour formerly stood in the middle of old London Bridge, within the parish of St Magnus, and as St Thomas is a secondary patron of the church, the Relic was honoured and venerated there. The organist played an heroic and prolonged improvisation as the relic was stuck in traffic, and arrived nearly thirty minutes late – St Thomas is not the patron saint of travellers. After Veneration, the Bishop of Szeged-Csanad gave a brief address touching on the history of the Relic in Hungary, its importance as a focus of opposition to the communist regime and, now, as an ecumenical symbol. Fr Warner preached a homily on the Translation of the Relic to a full church, which was followed by Pontifical seven-cope Vespers sung in the Latin tongue in a florid setting by Johann Baptiste Schiedermayer. Fr Warner had earlier spoken on the Sunday Programme on Radio 4 and dealt with the sceptical questions with aplomb. There will always be doubters: let the mockers mock, and the scoffers scoff. Let us, meanwhile, give thanks to God, and ask St Thomas of Canterbury to pray for us.