Saturday, 11 June 2016

Forty parts for forty years - Graham Ross & choir of Clare College help Spitalfields Music celebrate

Graham Ross and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Graham Ross and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Striggio, Schütz, Swayne, Tavener, Tye, Taverner, Tallis; Raphael Wallfisch, Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Graham Ross; Spitalfields Music Festival at Christ Church, Spitalfields
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 10 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Giles Swayne's passionate work for 40-part choir and cello at the centre of a hugely ambitious programme of 40-part music

This year Spitalfields Music is celebrating its 40th anniversary with the Spitalfields Music Summer Festival. To help celebrate this Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, performed a hugely ambitious programme of 40-part motets at Christ Church, Spitalfields. The members of the choir were joined by 12 alumni for Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium, Alessandro Striggio's Ecce beatam lucem (the work which probably inspired the Tallis), and were joined by cellist Raphael Wallfisch for Giles Swayne's The silent land, a work which Wallfisch and the choir premiered at Spitalfields Music Festival in 1998. The choir also performed Heinrich Schütz's Die mit Tränen säen werden mit Freuden ernten SWV 378 and Selig sind die Toten SWV 391, John Taverner's Dum transisset Sabbatum and Christopher Tye's Nunc dimittis. Raphael Wallfisch and the choir also performed John Tavener's Svyati.

Raphael Wallfisch - photo Benjamin Ealovega
Raphael Wallfisch - photo Benjamin Ealovega
Alessandro Striggio (1536/7-1592) was both a composer and a diplomat who worked both for the Medici in Florence and at the Este court in Ferrara. His 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem was probably written for Florence in 1561 in a performance honouring a pair of Papal envoys. It was probably performed with instruments doubling the voices as was common at the time (it certainly was performed like this in Munich in 1568). The motet has become especially notable because Striggio was also a diplomat and in 1567 the Medici sent him on a diplomatic mission to England. In 1611, after performances of Tallis' Spem in alium (with a new English text, Sing and glorify) for the investiture of Henry, Prince of Wales, someone remembered in a letter that Tallis's motet was inspired by Striggio's after the latter's visit. It is a relatively slender thread, but fascinating.

Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College opened their concert with Striggio's motet which is written for four uneven choirs, of 16, ten, eight and six voices. Ross had disposed the choirs around the church with one on stage, one in the balcony and two in front of the stage. This latter position meant that the young singers were standing right in front of the audience, almost in their laps. Inevitably communication was tricky with such large forces in an unfamiliar space, and with the singers performing one to a part; I suspect there might have been some nerves too. So the performance did not quite unfold with the relaxed beauty that it ought to have done, but any problems were mere ripples and overall the singers gave us a lovely sense of the calm architecture of Striggio's piece.

If Tallis uses his forces polyphonically, relishing the way the sound moves round the parts, Striggio wrote in blocks emphasising the contrast between different choirs and articulating the sound by having individual parts moving in rhythmic contrast to the whole.

Next the choir (without alumni) performed two of Heinrich Schütz's motets from his 1648 collection Geistliche Chor-Musik. Die mit Tränen säen werden mit Freuden ernten used the contrast between sombre grandeur with rhythmic joy to emphasise the contrast implicit in the words 'They that sow in tears shall reap in joy'. In Selig sind die Toten the choir gave us a lovely sense of the spaciousness of Schütz's writing, with the imitation given a nicely relaxed feel. The young singers made a light, quite transparent sound but with an underlying strength with a sense of rhythmic liveliness.

The first half concluded with Giles Swayne's The silent land, written for 40 part choir and cello and premiered by Raphael Wallfisch, the choir of Clare College, conductor Timothy Brown at the Spitalfields Festival in 1998. And both Brown and Swayne were in the audience for Raphael Wallfisch's performance with the choir of Clare College and Graham Ross. Swayne uses four SATB choirs with an additional solo voice in each to make a solo octet. With text taken from Dylan Thomas (Do not go gentle into that good night) , the Requiem Mass and Christina Rosetti's When I am dead and Remember, Swayne's intention was to create 'a Requiem which omitted, God, punishment and reward, and concentrated on the acceptance of human loss'. With the solo cello as the individual soul, the 32 part choir represented the wider community with the eight solo voices as the grieving relatives.

The singers were in a U shape round the edge of the stage with Wallfisch at the centre, the solo octet coming forward for their part. The singers formed a dark and sombre backdrop to the intense and impassioned cello part. It is not an easy piece, nor a comfortable one, and Wallfisch's inspired, passionate performance really articulated the soul's struggle. The choir accompanied him in superb fashion, giving a confident and poised performance of a tricky work; in fact I suspected that some of the unevenness of the Striggio might have been due to the amount of rehearsal the Swayne needed. But the results were passionately mesmerising

The choir formed a backdrop to the soloists and sometimes engaged in dialogue, the choral parts often using close and clotted harmonies, providing a dark and dense background; no comforting release here. Throughout there was a sense of questioning and uncertainty, at one point the singers repeatedly reiterated the word 'forget' from Rossetti's When I am dead against a general babble. At the end of this poem the texture thinned, with some of the men providing a whistling evoking the nightingale ('I shall not hear the nightingale/Sing on, as if in pain').  The ending saw the choral texture becoming more aetherial, but still with dense and clotted harmony, eventually retreating to a monotone as the cello moved from passion to something more contemplative, ending on a single questioning note.

After the interval the theme continued as the Graham Ross and the choir, with Raphael Wallfisch, performed John Tavener's Svyati. His 1995 work which uses a text in church Slavonic taken from the funeral service with the cello representing the priest, or Icon of Christ, and placed at some remove from the choir (Wallfisch was at the end of the nave), to create a dialogue between priest and congregation. I have performed Svyati twice, the second in circumstances which give the work great personal significance for me. It is a remarkable work. Wallfisch was eloquent in his account of the expressive quasi orientalisms (evoking Byzantine chant) of the solo part, with the choir providing superb contrast in the neutral, almost impassive performance. The choir's responses to the cello get progressively more complex, something the singers did with poise and quiet confidence, and Tavener's repetitions of gesture give the work as feeling of ritual. The ending, with Wallfisch's solo getting progressively higher, whilst the choir's 'svyati' got quieter was simply magical.

Next came Christopher Tye's Nunc dimittis which sets an English text which seems to date from the earlier English translations from 1535 and 1539. It received a relaxed performance, full of calm poise with finely shaped phrases. There was also a relaxed freedom to the complex polyphony in John Tavener's Dum transisset Sabbatum, in the way the lines wove in and out with great clarity of texture.

The final item in the programme was Thomas Tallis' Spem in alium with the eight choirs (each of five parts) placed around the nave, each one under a bay of the gallery. This had the advantage of surrounding the audience with sound, and enabling us to feel the way Tallis moves the sound round his performers (the opening section takes the sound round from choir one to choir eight). But I did wonder how much the individual choirs could hear of each other, and also depending on where you were in the audience you heard a different sound. The sense of 40 individual voices was palpable, though individual singers did stand out to a certain extent. For me this gave the performance a real sense of presence and occasion, this was a real performance, but on leaving I was aware that one or two in the audience did not agree.

The standard version of the piece was used, no modish transposing it up, yet the sheer lightness of the singers worked to great advantage and despite the low-ish pitch we had a lovely aetherial transparent texture. The sound wafted rather than gusted, even in the great moments when the 40 singers perform as one.

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