Review of “The Canterbury Pilgrims” at the Petersfield Musical Festival

To most people of a musical disposition, the name George Dyson will not ring many bells. Google “Dyson” and one gets a lot of information about vacuum cleaners. Those who sing in church choirs will have come across his splendid settings of the Canticles for Evening Prayer, Dyson in F and Dyson in D but few will have heard his masterpiece, “The Canterbury Pilgrims”, in performance…until last week, when the work was given a splendid performance at the Petersfield Musical Festival.

Under the calm baton of Paul Spicer, and with the Southern Pro Musica in top form, The Festival Chorus, resplendent in their multi-coloured apparel, gave it their all. In the opening Prologue the choir sings a capella with the orchestra topping and tailing each phrase; here the balance was good, the dynamics followed the composer’s instructions and the intonation was spot on. Towards the end of the prologue the choir were joined by the tenor soloist, Nathan Vale. Vale has a pleasant uncomplicated voice but needed to “sell” himself rather more to his audience – a little underpowered.

In section ll, The Knight, the orchestra came into its own, Dyson making full use of all departments, especially the large brass section. The choir managed to hold their own against this wall of sound and I was reminded of Vaughan William’s Sea Symphony in some of the more “full-on” moments. In The Squire we were treated to some delightfully delicate playing and we were introduced to the soprano soloist, Sofia Larsson as “The Nun”. She has a beautifully clear voice and an engaging presence which interacted with the audience.

In The Monk, we met the Baritone soloist, Edward Ballard. Ballard has a big voice which was ideally suited to the work. He was not overshadowed by the orchestra and one could hear every word. This was followed by The Clerk of Oxenford, to my mind one of the best parts of the evening. The tenors start a craggy fugue section, the other parts joining in with some precise, detailed singing. The first half ended with a march-like theme for the tenor and the chorus joining in with another fugue-like section, which, given the murmurs of appreciation from the audience, was enjoyed by all.

The second half started with The Franklin with the band going hammer and tongs and the Baritone battling bravely, if not always quite successfully. Again the influence of Vaughan Williams could be detected. In The Doctor of Physic, tenor Nathan Vale was more at ease and sang with assurance and clarity of diction. Sofia Larsson made the fun piece The Wife of Bath very much her own. With a jaunty accompaniment, she obviously enjoyed herself and delighted the audience with a stratospheric final B flat. In The Poor Parson we experienced some excellent four-part singing from the Chorus and the evening ended with L’Envoi.

I left happy but with a slight niggle that something was not quite right. On reflection I came to the conclusion that the work is a series of short separate vignettes and that there is no narrative to hold the piece together. Maybe that is why The Canterbury Pilgrims is not often heard? That said, it was a splendid evening’s music making and a great credit to all concerned.

David Francombe

Image: Sir George Dyson (c) The Royal College of Music

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