Sunday 15 December 2019

On Bethlehem Down: Chamber Choir of London & Dominic Ellis-Peckham at St George's Church, Bloomsbury

Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
On Bethlehem Down; The Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Ellis-Peckham; St George's Church, Bloomsbury
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 December 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Christmas music old and new in engaging performances from this young chamber choir

Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
The Chamber Choir of London is a relatively new ensemble under the artistic directorship of Dominic Ellis-Peckham. A group of 18 young professional singers who finished a busy 2019 with a Christmas concert on Friday at St George's Church, Bloomsbury.

Now, I have to confess that I am somewhat resistant to the traditional Christmas concert, and the prospect of traditional carols is not one that delights. But the combination of intelligent programming (including a significant number of contemporary pieces and many unfamiliar works) and a freshness of approach from the singers was enough to weaken the heart of the grumpiest of critics.

Bethlehem Down at St George's Church, Bloomsbury on Friday 13 December 2019 featured music by Cecilia McDowall, Richard Allain, Kerry Andrew, Jonathan Rathbone, Adrian Peacock, Peter Wishart, Judith Weir, Bob Chilcott, Toby Young, Sally Beamish, John Rutter, Sir William Walton, Imogen Holst and Herbert Howells, as well as arrangements by Sir David Willcocks, Andrew Carter, Henry Walford Davies, Charles Wood and Wolfgang Lindner.

The concert was billed as being by candlelight and so lights were low and there was a stylish arrangement of candles on the floor. The singers generally performed in a single arc or two lines, but for some items they surrounded the audience in a single arc, and in others they made full use of the many different spaces of the church.

We started with Cecilia McDowall's Now may we singen, with a big bright sound from the choir and McDowall's familiar uneven phrase lengths sung with lively energy. Richard Allan's imaginative version of the Coventry Carol surrounded the traditional melody with intense harmonies leading to a powerful climax. Kerry Andrew's Adam and the Mother was full of intriguing textures and haunting melodies, but the words rather disappeared into the space in St George's and I struggled to follow the story-telling.

The next group was more traditional, Sir David Willcocks' arrangement of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (whose sentiments always reminds me of Sister Ecclesia's My Talking Day from Sandy Wilson's musical Valmouth) sung in delightfully infectious fashion, Jonathan Rathbone's lovely The Oxen which combined the influence of John Rutter with lovely close harmonies, and Herbert Howells' perennial A Spotless Rose.

I could not listen to Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down without thinking of Joanna Wyld's recent Tweet about Warlock riding round Eynsford stark naked on a motorbike! Here, Bethlehem Down was beautifully shaped with fine detail in the inner parts, something that I noticed repeatedly during the choir's performances and enjoyed immensely.

Andrew Carter's arrangement of I wonder as I wander had some nicely spicy harmonies, and then part one ended with Adrian Peacock's striking Venite Gaudete, a work for double choir full of jazzy rhythms and a lively use of poly-rhythms to create a distinctive sound world.

Part two opened with Peter Wishart's brilliant Alleluia, again with an interesting use of poly-rhythm. Judith Weir's haunting Drop Down, Ye Heavens, From Above was built from a rather touching plainchant which grew to a rich texture, made all the more effective for being sung in the round. Bob Chilcott's The Shepherds' Carol was also rather touching, and the harmonies worked well with the space. The lively traditional Nowell sing we was delivered from different areas of the church, and Johann Sebastian Bach's charming O Little One Sweet was sung from the balcony by a small group of singers.

William Walton's All this time (from Carols for Choirs Two, familiarly known to choristers as the Orange Book), sung by a smaller group, was full of brilliant textures sung with great relish. Toby Young's What Child is This? had a lovely haunting melody. What strikes you with many such modern carols and arrangements is quite how influential the style of Sir David Willcocks and John Rutter in Carols for Choirs was.

The next group was all traditional, Henry Walford Davies' imaginative version of The Holly and the Ivy, David Willcocks' The Infant King, John Rutter's There is a flower and Imogen Holst's delightful Joys Seven, which was sung by the women of the choir. Sally Beamish's striking In the stillness started with a long wordless section before the rather touching main section. Finally, we completed the evening with Charles Wood's familiar version of Ding Dong Merrily on High and then Wolfgang Lindner's arrangement of Silent Night, rather effective but which took it a long way from the simple original.

Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
Chamber Choir of London, Dominic Peckham - St George's Church, London
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