Monday 15 December 2014

Choir of King's College, London at St John's Smith Square

Choir of King's College, London
Choir of King's College, London
Martin, Lassus, Villette, Tallis; Choir of King's College, London, Wilson; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 12 2014
Memorial and celebration, the late David Trendell's choir on fine form

Planned as a showcase for David Trendell and his choir of King's College London at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival, with Trendell's untimely death at the end of October the concert on 12 December conducted by Gareth Wilson became something of a memorial and a celebration. I suspect that quite number in the audience were people who had known David Trendell. Though nothing was said, Trendell's presence was palpable because it was very much his choir which we were hearing, with their remarkable vibrant and mature sound.

The programme went ahead unchanged, so that Gareth Wilson conducted the choir of nearly 30 singers, all choral scholars at King's College London, in the remarkably challenging combination of Frank Martin's Mass, Lassus's Missa Bell Amfitrit' altera, Alma Redemptoris Mater and Omnes de Saba, and two motets by Pierre Villette. The evening concluded with a group of old friends and students expanding the ensemble to to perform Tallis's Spem in Alium.
I had never heard the choir live before and, having heard them on disc, was looking forward to hearing them. The singers make a remarkably vibrant and flexible sound, far more mature than their age (early 20's at most) would seem to suggest. Trendell seems to have encouraged the use of vibrato and this resulted in a sound quality which was romantically vibrant (a friend at the concert described it as having a 'shimmer' to it) and has a lovely energy too. But this did not mean they were inflexible. We are not used to hearing Renaissance polyphony sung like this, too often it is given with a cool pale inflection. But when the choir is as attentive, vibrant and flexible as this the results are remarkable.

This was as true of the Frank Martin Mass as of the Lassus. Martin's remarkable work reflects his interest and knowledge of Renaissance music, though he was in fact a devout Calvinist and having written the mass he put it in a drawer. Wilson started the Kyrie at quite a steady pace with the choir providing a firm flexibility with a remarkable depth of tone. Things got faster and more impulsive in the Christe with some glorious climaxes which really carried you away. The group's sense of discipline was apparent in the Gloria but, as I said above, they are certainly not rigid and the final Cum sancto was a lovely mix of lightness, speed and excitement.  There was a restrained, almost veiled quality to the Sanctus, as if the passion was tamped down, but the Hosannas were bright and confident. The Agnus Dei had a slow built to a fittingly vibrant climax.

I have to admit that it took me a moment to adjust to the sound quality the group made in the Lassus, but I certainly came to appreciate it. In his Alma Redemptoris Mater they seemed to revel in the warmly expressive textures of the piece. Their amazing energy and tone gave it a striking quality.

The first half finished with Attende Domine by the French composer Pierre Villette (1926 - 1998). Though a contemporary of Pierre Boulez, Villette was more influenced by Durufle,and Messiaen as well as mixing in hints of jazz. He was rather discovered in the UK by a small group of cathedral organists and it was an early champion, Donald Hunt of Winchester Cathedral, who commissioned Attende Domine. It is typical Villette, using a fascinating chant-inflected melody which is combined with lush harmonies whose textures owe not a little to both Durufle and to jazz.

The second part opened with Orlande de Lassus's lovely Missa Bell' Amfitrit' altera. Written for two choirs and based on a so far unidentified madrigal, the piece was unpublished during Lassus's lifetime and comes from a Bavarian court manuscript of 1583. Wilson started the Kyrie off gently, with the choir relaxed and clearly enjoying the sheer richness of Lassus's part writing. The continuously moving texture of the Gloria was nicely detailed and very vibrant. Words were not particularly to the fore, the sound was more about the expressive quality of the music. The Sanctus was nicely relaxed with the performers bringing out the gorgeous richness of the polyphony. In the Agnus Dei the constantly moving texture was highlighted by the mobile inner parts. They followed the mass with Lassus' motet Omnes de Saba, an eight-part setting the Gradual for Epiphany. There was a lively interplay between the two choirs and everyone made a lovely big bold sound.

A second Villette motet followed, his Hymne a la Vierge with its interesting hints of more popular music in the melodies, and jazz inspired harmonies (particularly the naughty final chords) which the choir rendered with fluidity and a lovely freedom.

For the final work in the programme, Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium the choir was joined by former members and other friends to expand to around 48 singers (the motet is in 40 parts). The singers crammed onto the stage at St Johns, standing in an arc which is the formation that works best for the motet as Tallis's writing takes advantage of the way the sound moves as different choirs enter. A traditional edition of the piece was used, rather than trying it in one of the higher keys that choirs sometimes now use. This splits the five-part choirs into three lower parts, Tenor, Baritone and Bass thus giving the sound a lower richness which was emphasised by the amazingly full blooded performance. As might have been expected, the sound quality combined vibrant power with an attention to detail and fluidity. It was a remarkable performance, and a fitting tribute to David Trendall and what he has achieved with his choir.
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