Classical music review: Choir of King’s College short on Christmas spirit

Plus: a biography of Samuel Beckett’s musical cousin John Beckett

 John Beckett (left): He had his vision and his only need was to bend everyone he was working with to his will.

John Beckett (left): He had his vision and his only need was to bend everyone he was working with to his will.

 

There was a beautiful, hushed quality to Fauré’s early Cantique de Jean Racine as performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, at the National Concert Hall last Wednesday.

The choir is a byword for choral excellence, and conductor Stephen Cleobury presented this gentlest of music as if nothing in it needed to be given any special prominence. Every strand was revealed as if the whole were somehow miraculously lit from within.

The gentleness of the music-making did not work quite as well in the backward-looking 1947 Requiem by Maurice Duruflé, which sounded at times rather too plain, even under-nourished. The singing was always finely sculpted, but something in the reserve of the style kept the music at a distance. 

The concert, of course, was working up – through Fauré, Duruflé and three carol-anthems by Herbert Howells – to a sequence of much more traditional Christmas material. And when it arrived you could sense the spirits of the audience lifting, and you could hear the listeners’ approval in the extra warmth of the applause, too. But in the end it was an underwhelming evening, with even the log-fire effect of the Christmas associations not quite producing enough heat.

Multifaceted man

Charles Gannon’s biography of the late John Beckett (John S Beckett – The Man and the Music, Lilliput Press) is the story of a multifaceted man who rarely seemed to be shy of a definite view on anything to do with music.

Beckett and another Irishman, Michael Morrow, were trailblazers in the early music scene in London in the 1960s through their group Musica Reservata. 

Gannon quotes lutenist Anthony Rooley on the duo’s taste in singers. Their aim, he says, was “like a laser beam before its time, to cut through received opinions and standards, and have the human voice produce a direct, cutting-edge sound that went straight to the base of the spine and shot from there to alpha rhythms at the back of the head, like the release of kundalini energy in yoga – the serpent must wake.”

If you don’t believe him, you can sample some of their recordings on YouTube.

Beckett’s musical personality was that of a seer. He had his vision and his only need was to bend everyone he was working with to his will, whether it was to create the earthy raucousness that became a calling-card for Musica Reservata, or persuade students and professional colleagues in 1970s Dublin that Bach and earlier music was best played without vibrato. And if you worked with him, which I did as a student, you had to play from parts written out in his highly idiosyncratic – and on first sight utterly illegible – musical handwriting. 

He was not an easy man. He could be withering towards people who failed to meet his high standards. Andrew Robinson heard him ask someone, “Are you doing it that way because you like it, or out of sheer incompetence?”

And yet the passion that drove him could also make his unwavering attitudes endearing, and he had a kind streak in him, too.

Cousin Samuel

Beckett’s childhood in Greystones had involved playing piano duets with his cousin Samuel, whose pedalling skills apparently left something to be desired, and his music master at St Columba’s was Joe Groocock, whose obsessive adoration of Bach clearly rubbed off on his student.

But when he left Dublin for the Royal College of Music in London it was to study composition and organ – his early profile as a composer would later be developed through writing incidental music for Samuel’s plays – and he also had tuition in Paris from Nadia Boulanger.

He played the harpsichord in a 1950 Dublin performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor, though considerably more energy was devoted to plying Radio Éireann with ideas for music programmes to record and writing scripts for music broadcasts. 

But Dublin could not hold him – the RTÉ scriptwriting dried up – and he moved to London, where he lived from 1954 to 1971, teaching, performing, recording (these were the Musica Reservata years) and making programmes for the BBC. 

When he returned to Dublin he taught at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where his chamber music classes initiated a generation of musicians into the delights of baroque music and viol consorts, and he started an annual series of Bach cantatas at St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, which has long since achieved legendary status. It attracted the BBC to Dublin for specially commissioned recordings, and brought Bach cantatas from Dublin to the Proms in London and to the early music festival in Bruges.

Surprise tastes

He also got to show sides of his musical taste that came as a surprise to many people. He gave the Irish première of Mahler’s 10th Symphony (in the completion by Deryck Cooke), and also conducted orchestral works by Sibelius, Brahms and others. 

But, again, Dublin could not hold him, and he returned to London, aged 56, to work as a radio producer for the BBC, where the retirement age was 60. On the day of his 80th birthday, he was found dead at home, sitting in a chair. 

Gannon tells the life story of a man who never quite seemed to have found his niche in great detail, in a way that favours first-hand recollections over deeper analysis. He provides a list of compositions, a discography, lists of broadcasts (including Beckett’s work as a producer), and details of Musica Reservata and Bach cantata concerts. The whole provides a fascinating picture of just how difficult it could be for a major talent trying to lead the life of a serious musician in the Ireland of the 20th century.  mdervan@irishtimes.com

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