Thursday, 13 February 2014

Chansonnerie from Londinium

Londinium - Chansonnerie
Chansonnerie: Londinium, Andrew Griffiths: St Sepulchre without Newgate
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 7 2014
Star rating: 4.0

A choir to watch in a programme of music to French texts

London amateur chamber choir Londinium with conductor Andrew Griffiths are known for their quality performances and this foray into French music at St. Sepulchre without Newgate did not disappoint. Or rather I should say music in French, as it included German, and American composers as well as French. They also know how to put a show and get the best from their singers by splitting into smaller groups (making sure that everyone got a turn) for some songs.

The concert began at the back of the hall with ‘Les cris de Paris’ by Clément Janequin (c1485-1558). From hot pies and cakes to turnips, brooms and cheese, everything the renaissance customer could want. This kind of imitare le parole was typical of 16th century French music, and the staging by Londinium was cleverly done. As the audience was concentrating on the music at the back of the hall several singers moved around to the side to add in their ‘cries’ and so on until we were surrounded by the busy market place.


This was followed by Darius Milhaud’s (1892-1974) setting of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). A contemporary of Milhaud, Rilke was born in Prague, studied in Germany, visited Italy, Spain, Egypt, and Russia, but considered Paris his home. In 1919 Rilke moved to Switzerland and ‘Les Quatrains Valaisans et Vergers’, one of his many poems in French, was written in 1924 and set by Milhaud in 1939. Milhaud was also forced to flee France, moving to California in 1940. While there are those who believe that Milhaud’s best work was composed by 1926, these songs are very sweet, descriptive and ultimately performable.

Andrew Griffiths
Andrew Griffiths

The choir split up into smaller groups for the next two songs: ‘Toutes les nuits’ a sweetly chased love song by Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594) and ‘Frère Thibault’ a bawdy setting of Clément Marot’s (1494-1544) text by Pierre Certon (c1510-1572). The latter of which made good use dynamics but seemed a little restrained considering the content.

Paul Hindemith’s (1895-1963) ‘Six chansons’ were, like the Milhaud, written based on text by Rilke in 1939. In 1938 Hindemith moved to Switzerland but by 1940 also moved to the US, returning to Europe in the 1950’s. These are a typical example of Hindemith’s songs, representing musically each poem’s main topic. The first two were pensive and soulful, while ‘Puisque tout passe’ had more life and ‘Printemps’ was at first half dance-like but this contrasted abruptly with the last four lines. ‘En Hiver’ was very much louder (shouting at death - not giving up politely) and ‘Verger’ - the orchard - a happy folk tune.

‘Susanne un jour’ by Flemmish Claude Le Jeune (c1530-1600) sets a poem by Guillaume Guéroult, (1507-1569). This poem of a story from the Apocrypha was a favourite of composers at the time, including di Lasso, many of whom, like Le Jeune, based their composition on a setting by Didier Lupi.

Three longer song cycles completed the concert. The first ‘Trois Chansons’ by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was written between 1914 and 1915 and had lots of opportunities for solos. ‘Les chansons des roses’, another setting of Rilke, by the American composer Morten Lauridsen (1943-) was a popular choice. Although there was a lot of debate in the interval about the last poem ‘Dirait-on’ which, after four a cappella poems, is accompanied and people seem to either love or hate. In Londinium’s favour they were absolutely in tune when the piano came in.

The final set, ‘Chansons Francaises’, by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is a major setting of traditional , possibly mediaeval poems and took up the second half of the concert. These were all written between 1945 and 1946. Influenced by Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky Poulenc’s sound world is one of lyricism and nationalism but not without wit. ‘Pilons l’orge’ matched the rhythm of grain threshing with a lively text about arranged marriage, while ‘Dansez sabots’ mimicked a clog dance while discussing rules of courting.

This concert was a brief escape into French language, but we were thankfully supplied with translations in the programme notes. Occasionally in the fast sections the words seemed to run away a little but this was unlikely to be due to the language so much as the speed because they had clearly worked very hard on their pronunciation - singing in French when you have a regional English accent is no mean feat.
This amateur choir is definitely one to watch. Their next concert is on the 16th April looks at death and rebirth for Easter and will include the UK premier of ‘Recordare, Domine’ by Nico Muhly.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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