Having regrettably missed each of the last three Chamber Choir concerts to have taken place in the gorgeous surroundings of Durham Cathedral’s Chapter House, I was determined to not pass up another opportunity to hear some of Durham’s finest voices in action on Saturday 2nd March. Ably led by Conductor Theo Golden, they delivered a truly magical evening of music focused around British Choral music spanning the last 150 years. Credit must go to every single one of the singers involved for meeting the incredibly high demands of what was enourmously challenging repertoire.

Opening with Judith Bingham’s ‘The Drowned Lovers’, the choir’s sense of ensemble was evident from the opening bars. The intricately woven lines from the choir acted as a wonderful backdrop to a stunning solo performance from alto, Joy Sutcliffe. Her total command of the challenging solo, requiring a sizeable range, was beautiful to listen to, and set an incredibly high standard for all the solos that followed her! Before the audience could catch its breath after the basses final murmurings, the choir continued straight into Stanford’s ‘The Bluebird’, a beautifully lyrical work, with a celestial, soaring soprano solo sung by Rosanna Wicks. She handled her solo with deftness, subtlety and great musicality. Great credit must be given to Theo Golden for his management of the quiet staccato passages for the whole choir, which were commendably together, especially in such an echo-y acoustic.

The choir then turned to Paul Mealor’s setting of ‘Ubi Caritas’, a personal high-point of the evening in what was overall an incredibly high-standard concert. The level of intonation required to execute Mealor’s incredibly close and intricate harmonies is exceptionally high, and the Chamber Choir took this in their stride, creating a magical atmosphere in the process. Golden’s sense of line was beautifully thought through here, and he facilitated the singers to sculpt a wonderful tapestry of sound.

overall an incredibly high-standard concert

The central part of the first half of the concert was devoted to two works for double-choir by the late, great minimalist composer Sir John Tavener. Golden chose to make good use of the space by having the two choruses stood at opposite ends of the room, and from my seat in the very centre of the Chapter House, this decision paid great dividends, emphasising the antiphony between the two choruses very effectively. I do wonder, however, how this decision paid of for auidence members in different parts of the Chapter House.

excellent sense of lyricism and breathtaking changes of dynamics

In the first Tavener work, ‘A Hymn to the Mother of God’, Golden simultaneously achieved an excellent sense of lyricism across both choirs as well as eliciting some truly breathtaking changes of dynamics; the final ‘forte’ passage, in particular, was wonderfully evocative. Golden’s interpretation of the second of Tavener’s pieces, ‘Funeral Ikos’, was to opt for a slow, mournful approach to this text, and sonically, this suited the acoustic very well. This slow tempo did make the piece seem to drag on a touch, which was a shame. I wonder whether the same sonic and emotional effects could have been achieved at a slightly faster tempo.

The first half ended with Owain Park’s ‘Footsteps’, a tour de force for any choir, both in terms of difficulty and endurance! Although there were places where one or two entries weren’t totally confident, Park’s fast, athletic writing provided the choir’s first chance to show off their vocal agility. Prominent solos by Alice Latham (Alto) and Sebastian Carpanini (Bass) were delivered with great panache and depth of feeling. Of particular note was the choir’s wonderful sense of rise and fall in the ‘Spring’ section, over the words ‘all we are fill’d with immortality’; the phrasing here beautifully reflected the joyous nature of the text.

prominent solos by Alice Latham and Sebastian Carpanini were delivered with great panache and depth of feeling

The second half began with Bairstow’s short, but sweet, ‘Music, When Soft Voices Die’, set for male chorus. The choir’s male members delivered a very strong performance, with a very impressive blend. At times, however, some slightly clearer diction could have been useful, particularly in lieu of the acoustic. Regardless, this served as a very pleasant opener to the second half.

a new commission for the choir: ‘Hear the Mellow Wedding Bells’, composed by the choir’s own Lizzy Hardy

The penultimate item on the programme was a new commission for the choir: ‘Hear the Mellow Wedding Bells’, composed by the choir’s own Lizzy Hardy. The work featured excellent word painting – particularly in the closing passages, with the peeling of bells! – and a harmonic style that drew influences from several other composers heard during the course of the evening, and I hope I get the chance to hear more of Hardy’s compositions performed at some stage. It was clear that the choir enjoyed performing the work: they had a vibrant energy about them that was tangible.

The concert ended with Macmillan’s ‘Tenebrae Responsories’, a fiendishly difficult piece, with a variety of chord clusters and chromatic lines littered throughout the score. Chamber Choir once again proved to be more than up to the task in what was, in my opinion, the best performance of the evening. Overcoming a slightly wavered second entry, the choir fully committed to the deeply moving text of the first movement. The chromatic lines here were performed excellently, and the choir utilised the echo-y acoustics to their advantage in the canonic sections. The three declamatory statements of ‘Tradiderunt’ that opened the second movement were as breathtaking as the ‘fortepiano’ that followed them. The legato phrasing of ‘proiecerunt me’ could have been even more greatly emphasised in comparison to the more detached ‘et inter iniquos’. Moreover, there seemed to be a slight hesitancy in the second sopranos as to what their final harmonies in this movement were supposed to be. However, these minor points did not detract from the highly accomplished singing.

Chamber Choir proved to be more than up to the task… the best performance of the evening.

The final movement, ‘Jesum tradidit impius’, opened once again with three declamatory statements, each with increasingly distorted harmonies, that were executed flawlessly by the sopranos and altos. The challenging vocal lines in this movement were handled very well indeed by every section. It was in the final three minutes of this movement, however, that the choir elevated their performance to another level. The depth of feeling that the tenors and basses brought to their final iteration of ‘Petrus autem sequebatur eum a longe, ut viderent finem’ was heart-wrenching. And finally, the virtuosic closing soprano solo, performed by Chamber Choir President, Abigail Ingram, made for an enchanting and moving end to a very demanding concert.

Durham University Chamber Choir gave the audience a wonderful concert on a cold evening, and I would highly recommend going to see any of their future performances.


Upcoming Concerts

Saturday 15th June, 7:30pm, Chamber Choir in the Cathedral