The Joyful Company Of Singers, Holy Trinity Church, London

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The Independent Culture

There is a certain irony in an oratorio where a saint invokes Lady Poverty in an area of exclusive boutiques, yet Holy Trinity Church in Sloane Street was appropriate - the featured composer played the organ there and was a resident of Chelsea for more than 40 years.

Overshadowed by his illustrious sons, William Lloyd Webber (1914-1982) has only recently begun to appear on recordings as a creator of chamber, organ, and church music with a distinctive, late-Romantic voice.

A miniaturist at heart, he wrote only a handful of pieces for orchestra, notable for their concision and directness - the 100-minute duration of St Francis of Assisi makes it an Everest among an essentially modestly scored output.

Six soloists, chorus, strings and harp make up the forces required, but Lloyd Webber frequently pares the accompaniment down to solo violin, cello or harp, belying his predilection for chamber music textures.

The string writing is impressive. The chorus is also well served with a string of memorable numbers, the tone predominantly hearty and vigorous. The soloists' material is less memorable, with the exception of gloriously cavernous low notes for bass. Elgarian nobilmente, Grainger in "Handel-in-the-Strand" mode, Delian ecstasy and Straussian richness all feature in the eclectic idiom, while the choral writing is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams (Lloyd Webber's erstwhile teacher) and especially Gerald Finzi.

The strings of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields were consistently alert and polished until the fatigue of playing in a concert lasting nearly three hours finally began to show. The Joyful Company of Singers was in commanding form and made the most of its big choruses. Soloists were uniformly committed, bringing the text to life.

Peter Broadhead's direction was understandably respectful to the score. Yet more drive and less lingering over phrases would have reduced the work's slightly monstrous running time.

If St Francis is not quite the consummate achievement Lloyd Webber's followers hoped it would be, it contains many enjoyable moments.

The oratorio is brimful of tunes - it should delight those who respond to the works of George Lloyd, for example. The Chelsea Festival has shown great enterprise in undertaking this world premiere and presenting it so successfully.

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