Monday 17 April 2017

A beautifully fluid accout of Duruflé's Requiem to bring St John's Holy Week Festival to a close

New London Singers
New London Singers
Tavener, Poulenc, Duruflé; New London Singers, Martha McLorinan, Susie Winkworth, Ian Tindale, Ivor Setterfield; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 15 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Duruflé's wonderful Requiem brings St John's Holy Week Festival to a fine conclusion

St. John's Smith Square's Holy Week Festival concluded on Saturday 15 Apri 2017 with a concert from the New London Singers, conductor Ivor Setterfield, with Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano), Susie Winkworth (cello) and Ian Tindale (organ), in a striking programme which combined John Taverner's Svyati (for choir and cello), Poulenc's Quatre motets pour un Temps de Penitence, and James MacMillan's O Radiant Dawn with Duruflé's Requiem Op.9 in the version for mezzo-soprano, choir and organ (with cello solo in the 'Pie Jesu').

The New London Singes, founded in 1963, is an amateur choir which has been conducted by Ivor Setterfield since 1989. At St John's they fielded 30 singers with an admirable mix of younger and older singers. A certain amount of nervousness seemed evident in the opening items, fixed smiles on some of the singers, eyes glued intently on the conductor (hardly a fault indeed), some strange vowels and a slight tendency for the line to lose focus in quieter passages. But once the choir settled down, particularly in the Duruflé in the second half, we heard some really quality singing though I would have wished that the singers had relaxed enough to show their enjoyment of the music.

James MacMillan's O Radiant Dawn was correct, and had an impressively firm line without quite taking wing. It was followed by an atmospheric account Taverner's Song for Athene which showed off the choir's fine second basses.
Poulenc's Quatre motets pour un Temps de Penitence sung with admirable precision; this is tricky music, and the choir negotiated Poulenc's awkward corners deftly, with few smudges. Timor et Tremor had a nice firmness of attack and great commitment. In Vinea Mea Electa we heard some lovely flexible phrasing. Here, and throughout the motets, though the diction was excellent I really wanted the singers to make much more of the words. Tenebrae Factae Sunt had some tremendous harsh moments in Poulenc's spiky harmonies, whilst there was some impressive detail in the tricky bits of Tristis est Anima mea.

The choir was joined by cellist Susie Winkworth for Tavener's Svyati though Winkworth was on the platform with the choir, rather than separate as the composer preferred. Winkworth contributed a highly expressive account of the solo cello part, passionate and sometimes rather romantic in her interpretation. The choir provided fine support, with the low basses again impressive in their drone. With a lovely clear sound, the choir showed fine discipline, including some soft-grained tenor entries and a controlled ending.

For the second half the choir was accompanied by Ian Tindale on St John's Klais organ, and joined by Martha McLorinan and Susie Winkworth for the 'Pie Jesu' (though it seemed a bit unfair to have the soloists on the platform for the whole piece).

You cannot sing Duruflé's Requiem if you are nervously tense, Duruflé's flowing plainchant-based lines need to feel relaxed. And indeed the New London Singers brought a fine feeling of fluid naturalness, as if they had been doing it all their lives. Duruflé's wandering vocal lines flowed beautifully, creating just the right feeling of sensuousness with some nice timbral contrasts with Ian Tindale's organ.

The soft edged tone of the choir, particularly the men, suited the music with a nice feeling of understatement. There were moments of quiet intimacy, and the 'Sanctus' had a lovely lightness of tone, contrasting with the running figures in the organ. There were nice contrasts with the vibrant, more upfront passages in the piece, and Ivor Setterfield's tempi gave some passages great urgency. In the 'Libera me' we had some exciting mood changes and thrillingly vibrant tone at the 'Dies irae'. In the 'Pie Jesu', Martha McLorinan sang with a lovely sense of dignity and a richly supported line, duetting finely with Winkworth's cello.

The organ at St John's is not the Frenchest of instruments, (on disc you can hear the work performed by Ian de Massini and Cambridge Voices with Duruflé's own organ at the church of St Etienne du Mont in Paris, available from Amazon) but Ian Tindale drew out some striking stop combinations and I especially liked the solo stop used in the 'Hostias'. But he complemented the choir with some fluently expressive playing, and the separation between choir and organ (at opposite ends of the auditorium) brought a very French quality to the sound.

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