Saturday 15 March 2014

John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers

John Rutter and the Cambridge Singer
30th anniversary concert: John Rutter and Cambridge Singers: Choral at Cadogan at the Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 14 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Welcome opportunity to hear the choir live, and at the peak of their form

To celebrate the choir's 30th anniversary, John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers gave a concert at the Cadogan Hall last night (14 March 2014) as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. In a well filled programme we were treated to music by Giles Swayne, Richard Rodney Bennett, RVW, Elgar, Rossini, Orlando Gibbons, Charles Villiers Stanford, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Billy Joel, Percy Grainger and of course Rutter himself. The choir were joined by pianist Iain Farington, cellist Louisa Tuck, flute player Helen Keen and double bass player Malcolm Creese.

Using a line up of 26 singers (8 sopranos, 6 altos, 6 tenors and 6 basses) the group had a mixture of younger with more mature singers and the sound, though superbly focussed and flexible, also had a maturity to it. They opened with Giles Swayne's Magnificat, a dazzling piece from 1982 which Swayne based on a Senegalese ploughing song. The resulting mosaic of sound was tremendous both for its accuracy and rhythmic vividness.

Richard Rodney Bennett's A Farewell to Arms was written in 2001 and sets a pair of Jacobethan poems (by Ralph Knevet and George Peele) about an old soldier now retired (the image of the helmet become a beehive recurs in both poems). Bennett set it for choir and cello, with the contemplative cello solo (played by Lousa Tuck) perhaps representing the old man himself. There was an autumnal lyric sweep to Bennett's choral setting contrasting to the commentary from the cello. This was very much fine placed part-song; very beautiful and perfectly done.

RVW's Three Shakespeare Songs date from very late in his career, being written in 1951 though his engagement with the bard runs back to his early season writing music for plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The songs are magical, miniature late masterpieces and require fine control from the singers (they were written as competition test pieces). They received this from Rutter and the Cambridge Singers; Full fathom five was all transparent magic, accuracy and smooth tone, The cloud-capp'd towers combined vitality with expressive stillness whilst Over hill, over dale was taken as quite a lick, with the singers lightness and accuracy impressing immensely, and then it was gone in a wisp.

Rutter's own Musica Dei Donum followed next, written in 1998 it adds a flute to the choir. Helen Keen played the fluid flute solo which contemplated with Rutter's beautifully constructed, quietly contemplative stanzas.

By way of a pause, pianist Iain Farrington gave us his own transcription of one of Elgar's piano improvisations, which the composer recorded in 1929; a surprising and rather effective piece. Elgar's early part-song My love dwelt in a Northern land had a lovely and rather seductive texture. Not a masterpiece perhaps, but beautifully done. The first half of the concert ended with three of Elgar's Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, Op.27 in which Elgar set his wife's verses inspired by Bavarian folk-dancing and giving a group of works very much in the spirit of Brahm's Leibeslieder Waltzer. The Dance was a delightful waltz, the music making the words seem sensible and Iain Farrington contributing a highly characterful piano. The piano part in the Lullaby is perhaps the most memorable tune in the piece, its haunting yet characterful melody complemented with the smoothly expressive vocal line. On the Alm has a rather interesting dialogue between the male and female choruses, quite subtle and finely wrought. Finally The Marksmen which had rather more developed drama and a big Elgarian ending.

The second half opened with Rossini's I gondolieri, one of the Peches de Viellesse, originally written for vocal quartet and piano, but here sung by full choir with Iain Farrington coping superbly with the brilliant pano part. It worked well, but I would have preferred a more soloistic, less choral feel to the piece.

A trio of bird songs followed. Orlando Gibbons' The silver swan, finely done but again very choral in style; Stanford's The blue bird which was beautifully poised, and had the solo soprano sung by a group of sopranos to fine effect and Andrew Carter's charming arrangement of the Irish folk-song The lark in the clear air. 

Britten's Five Flower Songs came next. Written in the 1950's as a Silver Wedding present, they set five contrasting poems about flowers. To Daffodils, taken a quite a lively tempo, was nicely impulsive. In The succession of the four sweet months they brought out the beauty of line, and pointed Crabbe's text in Marsh flowers. The evening primrose had beautiful control, and Ballad of green broom was dazzling in the combination of speed and clarity of words. These were, perhaps, some of the most perfect performances that I had heard but they came in a long (perhaps overlong) programme.

Three love songs came next, Daryly Runswick's simple but effective arrangement of She moved through the fair, Gustav Holdst's light textured and poignant My sweetheart's like Venus and Bob Chilcott's arrangement of Billy Joel's And so it goes. Iain Farrington than gave a wonderfully vital performance of Percy Grainger's Scotch Strathspey and Reel.

The programme concluded with four of John Rutter's Birthday Madrigals, in which the choir were joined by Farrington and double bass player Malcolm Creese. Written in 1995 for jazz pianist George Shearing's 75th birthday, they combined an interesting jazzy feel with the English part-song and form a delightful conclusion to the evening.

The warm audience response was acknowledge with an encore, an arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's Skylark.

The programme was rather too long and too well-filled with choice pieces (the main programme finished at 9.50pm, which means we had a full two hours of music in addition to the interval). This is certainly one of those occasions when less really is more. The audience's degree of engagement with the programme was perhaps helped by the fact that most of the programme was made up of repertoire which would also suit an amateur choir, and so many of them could well have sung in performances.

This was a welcome rare opportunity to hear live a very fine choir in the peak of its form.

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