Following the Chamber Choir’s excellent performance in Durham Cathedral last week for the ‘Screen and Stage: Act 1’ concert, and having had my appetite wetted by tantalising footage of their recent rehearsals, I was extremely excited for what they would produce in their final concert of the year. They did not disappoint… In fact, what they created was nothing short of extraordinary.
Opening with ‘Peace I leave with you’, a short piece by the little-known Knut Nystedt, the Chamber Choir began the concert in stunning fashion. The balance and blend between the voices was excellent, and the subtle changes of vocal texture according to the shifting tonalities were very impressive, particularly on the sudden shift to Eflat minor on the lyrics ‘Let not your heart…’ managed expertly well by the sopranos.
This was followed by ‘We Hymn Thee’ by Pavel Chesnokov, a composer well-known for his extremely low bass writing (in keeping with the Russian Oktavist tradition). Will Sims, James Eyles and Jamie Goodwyn displayed truly astonishing control and tone quality throughout the evening in their lower ranges, and we caught a glimpse of their talents here, with truly spectacular contra-A’s appearing at points. The rest of the choir performed the work with great poise and eloquence, with the Russian diction very well executed (I believe Jamie Goodwin’s AS level Russian was very largely appreciated by the rest of the choir in rehearsals!)
The main centrepiece of the first half was Arvo Pärt’s ‘Tribute to Caesar’, a highly complex work with a featured baritone solo, sung on the evening by first year Alex Lee. Most impressive in Alex’s solo was his gorgeously smooth high range, which he floated effortlessly across the choir. Intonation of the challenging vocal lines at times wavered a fraction, but these were very minor occurrences in what was a very successful showing by the choir.
the balance and blend between the voices was excellent, and the subtle changes of vocal texture were very impressive
We then moved to Alfred Schnittke’s ‘Three Sacred Hymns’, which, for this reviewer, was a complete revelation, and my favourite performance of the evening. Golden masterminded some sublime contouring and phrasing through the antiphony of the double choir utilised in the work’s opening hymn, ‘Bogoroditse Devo – Hail Mary’. This was followed by the equally impressive second hymn, ‘Gospodi, gospodi lisuse – O Lord, Jesus Christ’, in which the crescendo achieved towards the hymn’s heart was truly spine-tingling. The third, and longest, hymn, ‘Otche nash – The Lord’s Prayer’, again showed the proficiency of the choir. The quieter sections could have been even softer, which would have added an even more special aura to an already-magical performance. Nevertheless, in the louder sections, all choir members produced a wonderfully expansive and broad sound.
To close the first half came two shorter works: first was Rachmaninov’s setting of the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, taken from his ‘All-Night Vigil’. It was clear that the choir were in their element, with the phrasing and musical lines crafted very sensitively, and the famous final descending scale in the 2nd basses to a contra-Bflat performed with panache. James Draper’s keening tenor solo was performed with great emotion and clarity; whilst his projection was enough to carry over the rest of the choir in the enormous acoustic of the cathedral, here was another point where the choir could have explored quieter dynamics more effectively to accentuate the contrasts between them and the soloist.
the choir were in their element, with the phrasing and musical lines crafted very sensitively
Kim André Arnesen’s ‘Even when He is silent’, a setting of a poem written by an anonymous Jewish prisoner in the Cologne Concentration Camp, provided a deeply moving end to the first half. The swells in intensity and volume during the repeated phrase ‘I believe in love’ at the piece’s core were heart-warmingly beautiful, and the unexpected (and no doubt difficult!) changes in tonality were executed virtually faultlessly. The moment of silence that was left over the audience at the work’s conclusion, even after Golden had lowered his arms to signal the end of the piece, truly elucidated just how touching this last work had been.
The second half began with a second setting of the ‘Nunc Dimittis’ text, this time by Arvo Pärt. A slight wobble at the start aside, perhaps through lack of concentration, this was a truly harrowing performance. Of particular note was the soaring soprano solo of finalist Olivia Peacock, whose tone blended beautifully with the accompanying chant-like passages. The low ranges of the altos were also wonderfully rich and warm, and provided Olivia a beautiful platform from which to work.
The programme then returned to Rachmaninov with his ‘Hymn of the Cherubim’. The choir’s 2nd basses once again showed their proficient low ranges by reaching all the way down to a subterranean contra-G, a truly staggering achievement for singers of their age. One of the few works from the programme to include faster-paced passages, the choir’s diction was highly commendable in the challenging cathedral acoustic.
The centrepiece of the second half was John Tavener’s extraordinarily difficult ‘Missa Wellensis’. Set in four movements and making sustained use of double choir in canon – an artificial echo, in effect – it is a work that demands that highest quality of intonation and musicality to produce incredibly intricate chordal clusters, as well as exceptional levels of vocal endurance; the vocal lines are uncomfortably high for many sections for prolonged periods of time, making the work a true tour de force! However, the choir acquitted themselves admirably throughout the work’s 20-minute duration. The opening ‘Kyrie’ was, by and large, executed very well indeed, although the inner harmonies could have perhaps been brought out a touch more to even further emphasise the dissonances. The sopranos and tenors must be highly commended for managing their horrendously unsympathetic vocal lines throughout the ‘Gloria’. The movement’s thunderous conclusion was exceptionally handled, with great energy put into the final phrases. The contrasts evoked between the two halves of the third movement, ‘Sanctus and Benedictus’, were well managed by Golden’s conducting, with the calmness at the start of the Benedictus section a welcome relief after the hysteria of the fast-moving lines of the Sanctus. However, the true highlight of the work was the concluding ‘Agnus Dei’, featuring soprano soloist Rosanna Wicks and tenor soloist Alex Akhurst. The solo lines for both are exceptionally angular and must have been very unpleasant to sing, but both should be given the highest praise for not only navigating the note changes accurately but for also creating an impressive sense of line.
Following this came Nikolay Kedrov’s beautiful setting of ‘Otche nash – the Lord’s prayer’, a work that was short but sweet. With rich tonal harmonies – a much needed respite after the heavy dissonances of the Tavener – the choir brought a wonderful sense of calm, as if they were lulling the audience to sleep.
the choir brought a wonderful sense of calm, as if they were lulling the audience to sleep
The final item of the program was Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s setting of the ‘Sanctus’ text. A composer whose music deserves far more recognition than it currently gets, this transcendent work provided a truly special conclusion to the evening. A work that seems to draw from several different composers heard throughout the concert, the emotion that the singers put into this hidden gem was incredibly moving, and the final cries of ‘Hosanna’ reverberated around the Cathedral in truly stunning fashion.
Durham should be extremely proud that its musicians are able to produce performances of this standard, and concerts like this ought to be celebrated. Congratulations must be extended to everyone involved, but especially to: Abi Ingram (Manager) and Aneta Bad’urova (Assistant Manager) for organising this concert; and to Theo Golden, who has over the course of the last academic year melded 22 of Durham’s finest voices into a truly awe-inspiring choir.