By Peter Fletcher

In the waning of the year, in uncertain times, Geraint Bowen conducted The Hereford Choral Society and The Hereford Sinfonia, presenting a thoughtful and thought-provoking set of pieces composed just before each of the World Wars. This was a very ambitious and uncommon programme. Nonetheless, what must have been months of hard work resulted in a spirited and heartfelt performance.

The first of these was John Ireland’s “These Things Shall Be”, setting verses of “A Vista” by J. Addington Symonds, expressing the belief, soon to be proved rather naïve, that science could overcome nature, and unite the nations of the world in peace and harmony. This rich, impressionistic piece showed the varied sonic palette of the orchestra, complimenting the chromatic harmonic landscape. The warm tone of the choir and the clear tenor solo (Paul Smy) further enhanced the colour, although perhaps a little more edge would have made the choral climaxes more telling; the wind and brass having the best of these encounters. The strings came into their own in the final shimmering transcendence.

Butterworth’s orchestral “Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad” was penned not long before the composer was killed at the Battle of the Somme. It conveyed an aching sense, not of loss but, worse, of impending loss. After some initial infidelities of intonation, the orchestra enthralled us with poignant themes from the song cycle. A sense of dread eventually gave way to a chilling string tremolando under a most lucid solo flute.

The first Vaughan-Williams work, “Serenade to Music” was unmistakable in its bucolic Englishness. From the vibrant lushness of the full orchestration emerged a perfect marriage of flutes and high strings, followed by the impeccable soprano (Rebecca Hardwick) floating out from the dark polyphony of the choir (the basses were particularly effective in this). The tenor replied with entirely believable awe. We were warned in pleasing baritone (Malchy Frame) not to trust “The man that hath no music in himself” and the soprano and mezzo soprano (Susanna Spicer) demonstrated with their truly complementary voices “the touches of sweet harmony”.

After the interval, the balance, intonation and ensemble were all much more controlled and we were treated to an engrossing performance of Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem”.

The Agnus Dei began with plainsong melodies woven around a pedal by the soprano and baritone. The choir introduced the Dona Nobis Pacem idea which would recur in various forms throughout the piece. The soprano sailed through the texture and also showed the strength of her lower register. Then, although the drums and bugles were unleashed, the choir balanced well the powerful orchestral forces. This was very rhythmic word painting.

The cathedral acoustic is always a problem for polyphonic music and the choir’s words were rather lost behind the baritone solo in “Reconciliation”, but they came through clearly in the declamatory “Dirge for Two Veterans”. John Bright’s “Angel of Death” speech was in a chromatic style of plainsong leading into another, vehement Dona Nobis Pacem and a canonic “We look for peace”.

Finally, the baritone invocations led into an exultant “Glory to God” and the soprano and chorus gave us one more Dona Nobis Pacem, a cappella.

And, all alone, the soprano had the last word: and the last word was, “Peace”.