Excellent singing from Choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge with minor non-musical shortcomings

Howells: Requiem; and anthems by Tallis, Brahms, Harris, Stanford, Walton,
Vaughan Williams, Philip Ledger
Vierne: Organ Sonata in B flat minor

Choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge, conductors and organists Joe Ashmore and John Ellse

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Thursday 9 July 2015, 7pm

Considering the atrocious weather, it was a pleasant surprise to find a sizeable audience at the church; the main body of the church was well-filled, and more than a handful of people occupied the seats in the raised section at the back.

However, it was disappointing to find a poor substitute for a printed programme. The composers and titles were merely listed, with below a description of the choir’s role and activities.  The Director’s name and career details were given, but in fact he did not conduct or play the organ; the two who did both were not named in the programme.  Moreover, the brief document was as scant of font size as it was in information.

The conductors introduced items verbally, but without benefit of microphone or of sufficient volume, and spoke far too quickly to be understood by those of us who like to sit in the rear
section.  The front half of the audience laughed at comments from the conductors – what were they?  I gather that among the remarks were one pointing out that all the composers had an association with Cambridge University.

Gripes aside, it was an excellent concert, much appreciated by the audience.  It began with Tallis’s ‘Sancte Deus’, in which a lovely tone was produced, after a slightly husky start.  The choir, a mixed
one, has good balance.  There will be those who will say that ‘It’s not the same without boy trebles’.  Indeed, it is not the same.  It has a warmer, fuller tone, and less of the ‘hooty’ sound that the traditional English cathedral and chapel choir often has had.  There is an attractive range of dynamics and expression.  The choir includes one male alto, 11 women and 8 men.

Judging by the chord given for the next piece (most of the programme was sung unaccompanied), the choir was slightly flat at the end of the Tallis.  A couple of other pieces finished slightly sharp. However, these little aberrations did not really matter – the choir never sounded out of tune during the singing.

Brahms’s motet ‘Warum ist das Licht gegeben’ was typical of many of the composer’s choral pieces in that the tonality was not quickly established, and it took some time to find a ‘home’ key.  This makes for an interesting quality.  There was some unpleasant, strident tone from the tenors here.  The long and complex work contained some gorgeous cadences.  The choir’s German pronunciation was good, and Brahms’s unusual harmonies and suspensions were brought out splendidly.

‘Faire is the Heaven’ is a beautiful setting of words by Edmund Spenser (1552-99), the music composed by William Henry Harris (1883-1973).  I am familiar with this popular piece, but I have never heard it more effectively and sensitively sung.  The slightly less well-known ‘Bring us, O Lord’ was another attractive item from Harris.

Charles Villiers (not Villers, RNZ Concert please note!) Stanford wrote very much music for the Anglican Church, and this accompanied item, ‘For lo, I raise up’ (composed in 1914) was a rousing piece.  There was an elaborate organ accompaniment.  Words were clear, and the pianissimo from the choir was beautifully judged.  However, there were some undisciplined sounds from the men.  The style of the piece made me think of our English-born twentieth-century professors of music in New Zealand: Victor Galway and Vernon Griffiths; indeed, the latter studied at Cambridge and may well have been taught by Stanford.

The Stanford was followed by an organ solo from John Ellse.  The programme did not divulge what it was, and again, I could not hear the announcement clearly.  However, a choir member told me in the interval that it was Organ Sonata in B flat minor by Vierne; I had picked that it was one of the French school; its character was that of his mentors Franck and Widor, with a colourful range of registrations, melody and harmony.

The Requiem by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) began the second half of the concert.  It is a most delicate and affecting work, and was conducted by John Ellse.  The singing featured gorgeous mellow tone; quite a different style of singing from that of the Tallis work that began the concert.  Throughout the seven movements (some in Latin, some in English) there were fine solos (as elsewhere in the concert), especially from sopranos.  The effect here, and throughout the concert, was enhanced by the splendid acousticsof Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Walton’s ‘A Litany’ (Drop, drop slow tears), written when he was only 16, featured multi-tonality, which was managed well by the choir.  His other anthem ‘Set me as a seal’ had the conductor and organist swap places again, for the organ accompaniment to this exquisitely sung piece.  Vaughan Williams lovely ‘O taste and see’ used the organ only for the introduction.  The concert ended with ‘Loving shepherd of thy sheep’ by well-known former King’s College Choir music director Philip Ledger; a striking piece, also accompanied.

As an encore, the choir sang Parry’s grand and well-known ‘I was glad’, with its majestic organ part.  Again there was some coarse male tone.  I observed one of the bass singers who seemed to ‘holler’ when the music was loud, which was a shame when all others seemed to manage their breathing well, and maintained good tone throughout the dynamic range.

Some choristers, particularly men, held their music copies too low down to enable them to see the conductor readily.  This can also inhibit the vocal production fully reaching the audience.

The overall effect of the performance was very fine indeed, and that the choral tradition continues in good heart and good hands in Cambridge was proved beyond reasonable doubt.



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