Sometimes Oxford seems to have the monopoly in choral groups. Here comes a globally-named company, Chorus Mundi, London-based, making its first visit to Oxford, directed by James Ross, himself an established figure in the Oxford musical world. They sang in St Mary Magdalen Church, an admirably sited central venue, which doesn't perhaps feature often enough in concert schedules.
And the programme? What else but Elgar, in this special year. But this was early Elgar, before all the better-known work. It comes from the 1890s, when he was living in Malvern, teaching, composing cantatas and choral works well-received and performed by local Midlands choirs, but still not a major national figure.
Shorter pieces first. The six Songs from the Bavarian Highlands are charmingly varied, in topic - pretty love song, lullaby, lively dance - and in treatment, with men's and women's voices sharing the lead, and important introductions and comments given to the piano (Anthony McCarthy, in excellent rapport with Ross throughout). Elgar chose the three best (nos. 1,3 and 6) for orchestration, in which form they are still often heard.
Two four-part works followed, both settings of Longfellow. Spanish Serenade rather endearingly repeats the phrase My lady sleeps' and evokes more Worcestershire than Spain. Next came The Banner of St George, an extended ballad' commissioned for Victoria's Golden Jubilee of 1897. A courageous choice by the choir and a first' for Ross conducting. It's very rare, too, well-suited to its occasion, perhaps in its lush setting of the fair sacrificial damsel, the menacing dragon, the dauntless knight bearing his cross to martyrdom, and culminating in a paean glorifying great England'. Two good things, though; a beautifully sung maiden from Francesca Jenkins, and - scorn not the poet - Shapcott Wensley, forgotten now, but soon to adapt Gerontius, and thus ensure Elgar's entry into musical Valhalla.