Tuesday 1 July 2014

Girl Power! The girl choristers of Southwark, Guildford and St Albans Cathedrals

Girl Choristers at Southwark Cathedral
Choral Revolution - music by Langlais, Faure, Bingham, Blatchly and Leighton; Girl choristers of Southwark, Guildford and St Alban's Cathedrals; City of London Festival at Southwark Cathedral
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 28 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Concert celebrating the rise of girl choristers in cathedral choirs

On Saturday 28 June at Southwark Cathedral as part of the City of London Festival, the girl choristers from Southwark, Guildford and St Alban's Cathedrals presented a concert celebrating the modern revival of girl choristers in Cathedrals. Conducted by their musical directors, Stephen Disley, Katherine Dienes-Williams and Tom Winpenny, with Paul Provost (organ) and Anne McAneney (trumpet), the combined choir performed music by Jean Langlais, Gabriel Faure, Mark Blatchly and Kenneth Leighton, along with the premiere of a new piece by Judith Bingham.

Jean Langlais's Tu es Petrus managed to banish any thoughts of Palestrina and was a very apt choice given that we celebrated the feast of SS Peter and Paul on 29 June. The crisply melodic vocal line was complemented with a rhythmic and stately organ part from Paul Provost. The girls impressed with the coherence, focus and firmness of their sound, making a fine ensemble. There was quite a range of ages in the choir, with some racial diversity too (something you do not always see in cathedral choirs).

The Langlais was directed by Stephen Disley (from Southwark Cathedral). Guildford's Katherine Dienes-Williams took over for the next two pieces, Faure's Messe Basse and the premiere of Judith Bingham's Les Saintes Maries de la Mer.

Faure's short mass for high voices and organ started out life as the Messe des pecheurs de Villeville which he and former pupil Andre Messager wrote together whilst on holiday in 1881, for a charitable performance in Villeville. Over 20 years later, Faure's contributions with a new Kyrie by Faure replacing that by Messager was published as his Messe Basse. With just three movements, Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus, it is a short but charming work. Faure makes much use of call and response, solo answered by tutti, which gave scope for some fine solos from girls within the choir. The ensemble made a lovely flexible sound, bringing clarity to the Sanctus, and a nice intensity to the Agnus Dei.

Judith Bingham's new piece sets works by Elizabeth Cook which describe the Camargue legend of Mary Jacobus and Mary Salome (two of the Marys who witnessed the crucifixion) being put in a boat without oars and ending up in the Camargue where they spread the gospel. Cook's words are simple but effective and Bingham set them with clarity and charm, using a three part unaccompanied texture with a lot of wordless accompaniment to the melody line. I think the work was all based on the same distinctive scale. Though Bingham's work was had an appealing clarity of sound it was not uncomplicated, and the girls gave a confident and well balanced performance.

There was then a short break for the girls whilst trumpeter Anne McAneney and organist Paul Provost played a group of works for trumpet and organ. Teleman's Air de trompette was a lively piece with much fiddly passagework played with delightful ease by McAneney. Alan Hovhaness (1911 - 2000) was an American composer of Armenian roots. His Prayer of St Gregory was originally for trumpet and strings and taken from his 1946 opera Etchmiadzin. It was a self-consciously archaic piece, but attractive for all that. And McAneney gave us some clear and easy high notes. Finally in this group, The Blue Window by the Czech composer Petr Eben (1929 - 2007). The Blue Window comes from Eben's 1999 work Okna (Windows), which was inspired by the Marc Chagall windows in the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem. The piece started with a complex chromatic introduction for the organ, full of gusts of notes; on the trumpet's entry the organ quietened but remained very busy. Against this texture the trumpet part was more direct, lyrically expressive but also dramatic.

The girls returned, this time conducted by Tom Winpenny from St Alban's Cathedral, to perform Mark Blatchly's For the Fallen and Kenneth Leighton's Easter Sequence, both works involving Paul Provost on the organ and Anne McAneney on trumpet. Blatchly's work sets the well known poem from 1914 by Laurence Binyon. The choral contribution was mainly unison with a little bit of divisi. The girls sang Blatchly's pleasantly melodic line with firmness and flexibility, though without very strong diction. The piece's main charm comes in the poignancy of the refrain 'We will remember them', sung by young voices.

The concert concluded with Kenneth Leighton's An Easter Sequence with texts taken from the Propers for the First Sunday after Easter and the Antiphon at the First Vespers of Ascencion Day.  It opened with a bright and complex Alleluia throughout gave some very fine solo opportunities as well as glorious tuttis. There were some interestingly jazzy rhythms in the organ and some interesting rhythmic moments, but also quieter reflective ones. There was a sense that the work rather pushed the choir, but they responded magnificently and my only real complaint was the poor diction. Sitting in row R, it was difficult to hear the words and as we had not been giving a printed copy of the words this meant that I was in the dark as to some of the detail of the piece. This was a shame as both the work and the performance were very worthy of attention.

As an encore, Stephen Disley returned to the platform to conduct Geoffrey Burgon's Nunc Dimittis.

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