Tuesday 16 December 2014

Lux de Caelo - Choir of Clare College at St John's Smith Square

Bach, Mendelssohn, Michael Praetorius, William Mathias, Berlioz, Webern, Giles Swayne, Webern, Schoenberg; Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Dmitri Ensemble, Graham Ross; St. John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 13 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Eclectic Christmas programme culminating in Schoenberg's choral masterpiece

Graham Ross - photo credit Ben Ealovega
Graham Ross
photo credit Ben Ealovega
Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge returned to St John's Smith Square on 13 December 2014 as part of their Christmas Festival for what has become the choir's annual Christmas appearance there. This year they were joined by the Dmitri Ensemble which helped to launch the choir's new disc of Christmas music, Lux de Caelo. The programme was quite an eclectic mix with Bach, Mendelssohn, Michael Praetorius, William Mathias, Berlioz, Webern and Giles Swayne alongside arrangements of carols both traditional and non-traditional, plus Britten's A Ceremony of Carols and Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden.

The concert began with the choir in the balcony of St John's, from where they sang a nicely expressive performance of Bach's chorale Brich an, o schoenes Morgenlicht and Mendelssohn's Frohlocket notable for its lightness and fluency.

During Ross's spoken introduction the choir then assembled on the platform and performed three pieces by Michael Praetorius with Matthew Jorysz on chamber organ. Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern alternated soloists from the choir and tutti, all making a lovely clear bright sound. The piece sounded rather like variations on a choral. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, perhaps Praetorius's best known piece was precisely sung in quite a light manner. Finally, the delightfully perky Quem pastores laudavere where it seems as if the shepherds were dancing to see the Christ child.

A group of carols followed, Away in a manger in Reginald Jacques arrangement using an old French carol rather than the well known tune, Walford Davies arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy and RVW's arrangement of The truth from above but with far more verses than RVW used based on another surviving version of the carol. All were appealingly sung with a beautiful tonal finish and it was nice to hear a different tune for Away in a manger.

The first half finished with Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols in the arrangement for SATB choir by Julius Harrison. For this piece, the choir was joined by harpist Tanya Houghton. Rather impressively the choir sang the piece from memory. The work started and finished with a lovely flexible and flowing yet firm  plainsong from the women in the choir. For the other movements, Harrison had sympathetically arranged the piece to work for mixed choir and a number of movements showcased the fine soloists from the ensemble. The performance was almost ideal, and works well given the bright young voices of the choir though some moments such as That yonge child had a rather different aura when sung by adults rather then children. A more problematical feature of the arrangement was that the texture of the choral singing, particularly the men's voices, was far denser than you would get from children and there were passages where the harp did not cut through as well as it should have done. Overall we had some fine expressive singing, with vivid rhythms in the final Deo Gracias.

For the second half, the choir was joined by the Dmitri Ensemble. The first piece, Ross's own arrangement of the Spanish dance-based carol Riu, Riu, Chiu was started with the performers all scattered around the hall and they gradually came together; effective enough but it did feel like a bit of a stunt. It was  a lively and catchy work and could certainly catch on. Rutter's arrangement of Personent Hoie had a lively pseudo-medieval accompaniment of wind, harp and drum. William Mathias's A babe is born had a rather jazzy feel to the rhythms, with a nice dancing feel.

David Willcocks arrangement of the traditional French carol Quelle est cette odeaur agreable was sung with a lovely flowing line. Ross's own arrangement of the traditional Italian piece Tue scendi dalle stelle had a lovely lyrical lilt, whilst Berlioz' L'adieu des bergers from L'Enfance du Christ had a charming simplicity.

Anton Webern's setting of Dormi Jesu is short and austere, and the tricky 30 bar piece was beautifully rendered by the sopranos from the choir and clarinettist Peter Cigleris. Giles Swayne's setting of the Coventry Carol for choir and harp started off rather eerie and haunting, with the men disrupting the mood when Herod comes into the story leading to a powerful climax.

Two unaccompanied arrangement followed, David Willcocks' version of The Infant King  and Ross's own version of the Austrian carol Still, Still, Still; both of which were beautifully done.

The final work in the programme was of a completely different cast, one of the last works Schoenberg wrote before his music became completely serial, Friede auf Erden. It is a large scale, complex and taxing piece; originally for unaccompanied double choir (in which version I have performed it), Schoenberg orchestrated the work to make it easier. It was in this version that the choir and orchestra performed it, though the term easier is relative. Schoenberg's vocal writing, even when supported by orchestra, remains enormously taxing and the work requires a remarkable combination of stamina and accuracy, as well as taking the singers to the limits of their ranges. Whilst I would have love to have heard the group performing the a cappella version (despite Ross's pleading in the programme notes, I think the unaccompanied version the stronger), this was a terrific performance with both choir and orchestra completely fearless in their attack on the music.

The eclecticism of Ross's choice of music was characterised by the encore that they gave us. Few people, I think, would have the chutzpah to follow Schoenberg with Adolphe Adam, but the choir and orchestra sent us away with a very fine performance of Adam's Cantique de Noel (sung in the original French).

I have to admit that the programme, for me, did not quite add up to the sum of its parts. Individual items were superb but there was a feeling of a little too much filling, raiding Carols for Choirs to provide repertoire and the diversity did not quite gel in the way that Ross's programming on the choir's recent Advent and Easter discs. But everything was superbly done, and I was enthused by the way Ross challenged us all by including Schoenberg's masterpiece.
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