Tuesday 19 October 2021

Boxgrove Choral Festival 2021: from Spanish Renaissance to contemporary British music

Joseph Wicks and the Beaufort Singers at Boxgrove Priory
Joseph Wicks and the Beaufort Singers at Boxgrove Priory

Boxgrove Choral Festival 2021; The Beaufort Singers, Joseph Wicks, Helen Charlston, Michael Craddock, Alexander Soares; Boxgrove Priory

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 October 2021
Young performers in an imaginative mix of repertoire from Spanish Renaissance to contemporary, in an online offering

The Beaufort Singers is a chamber choir formed at the University of Cambridge in 2016 and directed by Joseph Wicks. Named after Lady Margaret Beaufort who founded St John’s College, Cambridge, Joseph Wicks and the choir founded the Boxgrove Festival in 2018, thus giving the choir a new home at Boxgrove Priory. The 2020 festival was cancelled, whilst the 2021 festival went ahead with a small live audience and the concerts were filmed and are available on-line until mid-November. 
The membership of the choir comprises singers from across the UK embarking upon the early stages of their careers, and plans for next year's festival are already well under way with a celebration of the centenary of Frank Martin with a performance of his mass.

This year's festival features four concerts online via OnJam, two concerts from the Beaufort Singers and Joseph Wicks, music from the Spanish Renaissance with Lobo's Lamentations for Holy Saturday and Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories, and a concert of largely British music, intended as a reflection on emotions from the last 18 months with Howell's Take him Lord for cherishing, William Harris' Bring us, O Lord God, Edward Naylor's Vox Dicentis: Clama, Philip Moore's Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and music by James MacMillan, Neil Cox, Holst and Biebl. There is also an organ recital from Joseph Wicks, playing the two-manual Hill organ at Boxgrove Priory with music by Bach, Gibbons, Dupre, Hindemith and Percy Whitlock, and mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, baritone Michael Craddock and pianist Alexander Soares in songs from their Isolation Songbook [see my review of their disc].

The concert of Lobo and Victoria featured the first use by a UK ensemble of a new critical edition of Victoria’s entire Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae by Italian scholar Enrico Correggia. This is a young choir, with some 17 singers and as hear on the recording they make a lovely bright, flexible sound and bring quite vibrant tone to the Spanish repertoire, Their recital begins with Lobo's Lamentations, sober, intense yet with an underlying vibrancy of feeling. Wicks keeps this moving but the clarity of line from the singers ensures that textures never become muddy. And in the Victoria the choir gives us some wonderfully strong moments indeed, even when textures thin the lines have a vivid quality to them ensuring the sculptural quality of Victoria's music. 

Helen Charlston and Michael Craddock's Isolation Songbook was born in 2020 of a desire to perform together (they are couple in life) and consists of songs specifically written by composers who were family (including Helen's father) and friends. The result is a very personal view of 2020. Whilst the Isolation Songbook has been recorded and performed in live-stream, this performance represented the first time that Helen Charlston, Michael Craddock and Alexander Soares have performed the music with an audience live in the room. In the recital there are songs by Owain Park, Richard Barnard, James Davy, Heloise Werner, Kerensa Briggs, Matthew Ward, Elliot Park, Terence Charlston, Andrew Brixey-Williams, Derri Joseph Lewis, Stephen Bick, and Ben Rowarth, moving between duets and solos, with a variety of styles from the intense, the serious right through to Ben Rowarth's brilliant comic scena. The piano sound is somewhat limited, but Alexander Soares brings out the best in the instrument and it clearly meant a lot to Helen Charlston and Michael Craddock to bring such a personal project into the public realm.

The final concert in the festival was the choir's evening of largely British music from Wicks and the choir. They begin with Herbert Howells' Take him Lord, for cherishing, again strong lines bring out the architectural feel of this striking piece, even when the harmony flowers into richness. Philip Moore's intense Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are terrific pieces, and deserve to be far more widely known and it is lovely to have this sympathetic, intense yet poetic performance. Neil Cox's Eternal light, shine into our hearts provides us with some warm textures and rich, contemporary harmonies, and the style leads quite appropriately to both Holst's gem of an Ave Maria (sung by just the women) and James MacMillan's striking Christus Vincit with its moments of intense, close harmonies and highly concentrated style. In between Franz Biebl's rather lovely Ave Maria provides a moment for the male voices.

Edward Naylor's Vox dicentis: Clama is a familiar part of the choral repertoire, but a welcome one especially in a performance as vigorous and vibrant as this one. We end with Harris' glorious anthem, full of his familiar style, lovely to sing and lovely to listen to, a real aural treat to end.

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