The 60th anniversary of Her Majesty’s Coronation has prompted much festivity and reminiscence. To be on the throne for such a long time is a remarkable achievement, and to be almost as active as ever in carrying out royal duties 60 years on even more so; events such as the service of celebration at Westminster Abbey, and the many Coronation-related television and radio broadcasts, have provided an opportunity to reflect on the life and times of our longest-lived monarch.

Queen Elizabeth II after her coronation in 1953. Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum.
Queen Elizabeth II after her coronation in 1953. Daily Herald Archive at the National Media Museum.

Yet the Coronation was remarkable too in at least one other aspect: the music. Her Majesty’s Coronation at the Abbey on 2 June 1953 was an extraordinarily musically rich service – an opportunity to hear music that had been composed for coronation services in times gone by, and also to welcome new works by some of the most fêted composers of the day, including Herbert Howells, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. There was always bound to be a major concert of Coronation music put on in this anniversary year; fittingly, it found itself taking place at the Royal Festival Hall. The Crouch End Festival Chorus, plus guests from Hertfordshire Chorus and the Dessoff Choirs, who had made the trip from New York City, and the London Orchestra da Camera, all under the baton of conductor David Temple, put on a programme of orchestral and choral music for the occasion.

From the off, the 300 voices of the combined choirs provided an enormous wall of sound – not a bad thing for the opening item, Handel’s Zadok the Priest, which was performed with gusto. It was particularly impressive to hear so many voices sing so accurately together: diction, intonation and ensemble proved to be no problem at all. The choral pieces were interspersed with orchestral numbers – there was, of course, a considerable amount of music played to entertain guests before the service began – the first of which was a brisk take on Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves, albeit one which showed no signs of falling apart. Less successful was Walton’s Coronation March: Orb and Sceptre: taken at such great speed, the triplets in the brass at the beginning and the fast semiquavers in both the brass and the violins towards the end were difficult to discern, and the sense of ensemble slipped occasionally.

Parry’s I was glad was resplendent, however, and the sheer number of singers only added to the majesty of the piece. The central section, which sets the words “Vivat Regina” and is usually omitted except at coronations, was included here, though it was sung with considerably more refined voice than the Queen’s Scholars of Westminster School did at the Coronation in 1953 – they were, and their successors are, academic scholars rather than (necessarily) musicians. The combined choirs navigated the many tricky points of Walton’s Coronation Te Deum with consummate ease, and the semi-chorus seemed confident in its lines (“Vouchsafe, O Lord...”) whilst maintaining an appropriately delicate tone. Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 rounded off the first half in rousing style.

If the first half was more pomp and circumstance than serious music, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast made for a second half with welcome gravitas, though it, too, nevertheless has its moments of grandeur. Walton’s setting of the Biblical story (in words by his contemporary and friend Osbert Sitwell) of the feast at which King Belshazzar uses sacred Jewish vessels to praise heathen gods and is then miraculously killed is highly dramatic; his music reflects his interest in jazz and other secular forms, which are used explicitly in this piece despite its religious story. It is by no means an easy piece to sing, but the choirs were well rehearsed – there were no obvious mistakes; tuning remained on good form, and the balance between parts was just so. “By the waters of Babylon” was particularly well judged in terms of sensitivity. Baritone Ashley Riches complemented the choir with a warm and expressive, yet eminently youthful, sound as the narrator of this emotionally charged tale.

The concert was thus one which left me with mixed feelings. On the whole, tempi were brisk – sometimes that was helpful, producing a charismatic performance by orchestra and choirs; other times less so. The wall of sound that presented itself so powerfully at the start of the concert soon proved that it was not just noise: the dynamics and expression were there too, and particularly so in the latter half of the concert. Crouch End Festival Chorus is plainly one of the best amateur choirs of its type, and its members certainly did themselves justice in this concert.