Friday 25 January 2013

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge at the London A Cappella Festival

Choir of Clare College Cambridge, director Graham Ross
The choir of Clare College Cambridge, directed by Graham Ross, opened this year's London A Cappella Festival at Kings Place. The choir sang a programme of 20th century choral works, including major works by Britten, Arvo Part, John Rutter and Arnold Schoenberg, plus motets by Poulenc and Durufle. The 27-strong mixed-voice choir was founded in 1971 and sing three college services per week plus concerts and recordings. Their programme was based around music for the octave of Epiphany (a period which finishes on 3 February).

They opened with Maurice Durufle's motet Ubi caritas and Francis Poulenc's motet O magnum mysterium, from his four Christmas motets. During the concert we heard all four of Durufle's Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens op. 10 and three of Poulenc's four Christmas motets. Both sets of motets have their awkward moments, particularly when it comes to balance and the placing of notes in chords. Poulenc's choral writing is particularly tricky as his allocation of parts is not always obvious and relatively simple harmony can be made more difficult by the way he moves the vocal lines around in an apparently awkward manner.

Both composers require the singers to have total flexibility, a very good ear and the feeling that they have been singing the works for ever. This the choir did quite brilliantly. The performances were not quite perfect, there were one or two moments when the balance in a particular chord was not great, but it was pretty damn good especially for a live performances. I used to sing in a good chamber choir in Scotland whose director refused to perform Poulenc's motets saying that they just were not worth the sheer amount of effort needed to get them right. Graham Ross and his choir showed that the effort was worth it!

Next came the first major work in the programme, Benjamin Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia, a setting of words by W.H.Auden which Britten wrote on the boat when returning back to the UK in 1942. Ross and his singers brought a lovely dancing quality to the music, both in the opening movement and in the tricky scurrying second movement. In this latter they showed impressive control in Britten's tricky textures. Gabrielle Haigh was the very feminine soprano soloist in the the final movement, accompanied by the choir with a fine feeling for line and for texture.

Durufle's Tota pulchra es and Poulenc's Quem vidistis were followed by Arvo Part's astonishing setting in English of the genealogy of Christ from St. Luke's Gospel, ...which was the Son of ..., it was premiered in 2000 in Reykjavik by Voices of Europe 2000 under Thorgerdur Ingólfsdóttir. There are some 90 lines in the genealogy and Part begins simply, with the men and women singing alternim. Gradually the piece builds, with Part alternating homophonic passages with those using his tintinabuli style, till the final line which was the Song of God, a quiet summation of all that has gone before. Ross and his singers showed fine control in the way they allowed the music to grow and developed slowly over the course of the 90 lines of rather repetitive text - Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi &c

Durufle's Tu es Petrus was followed by A Hymne to Christ by Imogen Holst. Holst was the daughter of composer Gustav Holst and assistant to Benjamin Britten; her own composing talents have been rather over shadowed. Graham Ross and the choir of Clare College Cambridge recorded the first ever disc of Imogen Holst's music. Holst's anthem was a lovely little piece, setting words by John Donne, and given a beautifully shaped performance by the singers

John Rutter was music director of the choir of Clare College, and during his tenure he commission Herbert Howells to write a piece for the choir. After Howells's death, Rutter wrote something for the choir of Clare College to sing at the dedication of the Howells window in Gloucester Cathedral. This was Hymn to the Creator of Light, a substantial double-choir work in which Rutter seems to be paying homage to Howells. It opens with some astonishing moments with complex harmony and textures a world away from the populist Rutter. It is a taxing piece, and the choir betrayed hints of uncertainty of tuning and a certain smudginess round the edges, but all in all it was an extremely involving and evocative performance.

Poulenc's Videntes stellam was followed by Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden, an astonishing work written in 1911 just before Schoenberg started writing completely serial music. The piece pushes the boundaries of tonality and is a taxing tour-de-force for choirs. This was a brilliant finale to the concert, with the choir showing superb control in Schoenberg's textures which can often be rather more difficult than they seem, the harmonies pushing conventionality to the limits. Perhaps the biggest problem with the piece is that it should not sound difficult! The choir have just recorded the orchestral version of the work (created by Schoenberg because the original performers said it was too difficult to sing unaccompanied), but I think they rather enjoyed demonstrating that they could do it unaccompanied too. 

Being a festival there were foyer events too. Before the main event, I caught a fine performance of some gospel numbers from Music in Offices, a group which brings the benefits of performing music into the workplace. The choir of mixed ages and abilities was clearly having fun, and under James Davey's direction delivered some very enjoyable performances. They were followed by Seiaccordo, a rather brilliant six-piece vocal group who are prominent in Rome's live music scene. The did some very imaginative arrangements of popular songs, but were let down by the fact that the PA system was far too loud. I'm afraid that I fled to a quieter area.

The festival runs until Saturday 26 January with a plethora of events in the halls and in the foyers, further information from the London A Cappella Festival website.  The choir of Clare College is back in London tomorrow (26 January) as they are singing in Mark Elder's performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, further details from the LPO website.

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