Performing choral music at the highest level, Durham University Chamber Choir’s programme promised a journey through Western Music history, taking the listener from the 10th century all the way to the contemporary composer. Though it may have made more sense to present this choral journey in chronological order, the afternoon’s concert provided the audience with some beautifully performed choral gems.
Beginning this programme was Guido d’Arezzo’s plainchant setting of Ut Queant Laxis, which, as was so well articulated by conductor Marcello Palazzo, is the origin of the Solfege system. This was sung by the men of the choir, whose warm and well-rounded blend set an atmospheric tone. Though it must be said that it was somewhat a bold choice to begin the concert with a work in which the voices are so exposed, and whilst occasionally there were discrepancies in tuning and timing, the decision certainly paid off.
Following this were Elgar’s Four Part-Songs, the first of which is defined by its bitonality between the upper and lower voices of the choir. Beginning with the lower voices, this atmospheric entry appeared as a seamless transition from the plainchant. The entry of the upper voices in the alternative key was flawlessly carried out and the gentle mood was well-achieved. Whilst there were occasional waverings in tuning, which were most noticeable at moments of octave unison, there were some particularly nice contrasts in legato and staccato singing, with wonderful word-painting on the detached notes on the word “craggy”. The final phrases on the word “sleep” was expertly passed between the upper and lower voices, and might have been enough to send the audience into peaceful oblivion. The following movements showed nice dynamic contrast to the early more mellow singing, and by this point the tuning of the choir appeared to have settled. Text was largely well articulated, although at times this was slightly lost during faster paced moments in the third movement and tighter rhythms here would have been nice. However, it must be said that the sentiments of Tennyson’s beautiful poetry were well expressed throughout by the choir’s dynamic variation.
Judith Weir’s Love Bade Me Welcome provided a lovely opening which showcased the upper voices of the choir with well-handled unisons and dissonances; this was certainly nice to hear in contrast to the lower voices at the beginning of the programme. A nod must be given to the altos, whose resonant lower notes wonderfully supported the floating folk-like melody carried by the sopranos. Two consorts performing Renaissance music sandwiched the premier of Palazzo’s composition. Both comprised five singers, the first of which were all first year students performing Monteverdi’s Cruda Amarilli, and the second more experienced singers from the choir who expertly performed Gesualdo’s Ascuigate i Begli Occhi. Both consorts performed the Italian works with elegant panache, which was especially impressive given the choice to perform from memory. The difficult dissonances characteristic of Gesualdo’s writing were expressively brought out, and both consorts performed with a good blend and communication within the ensemble.
Marcello Palazzo’s technically complex work Remember Me When I Am Gone certainly brought a charge of energy to the repertoire of the first half, with its angular melody lines, dissonant cluster chords and fiendish rhythmic intricacy. Special mention must be given to Olivia Peacock and Jess Norton-Raybould, whose challenging opening solos were managed with technical precision and clarity. Furthermore, the tenor solo given by Nathaniel Thomas-Atkin over a rhythmically busy accompaniment cut through the texture extremely well. A more homophonic section, which showcased the choir’s rich sound was rounded off with solos delivered by baritone Peter Hicks and tenor Tad Davies, whose final notes were left hanging at the close of the piece. Palazzo’s passion for the piece was certainly clear even to the audience from his vibrant and expressive conducting.
‘the hauntingly beautiful sound washed over the audience creating an atmosphere of calm and tranquility…nothing short of heavenly’
The first half was rounded off with Julian Anderson’ At the Fountain and Poulenc’s O Magnum Mysterium, both of which were beautifully performed. At the Fountain showcased some expert low notes in the basses and stunning solos by soprano Hannah McKay and alto Emily Beringer, who soared above the texture with ease. I would argue that Poulenc’s haunting setting of O Magnum Mysterium could have begun even quieter, especially considering the impressive pianissimo singing that the choir had demonstrated earlier in the programme. The soft soprano entry was precisely managed, especially since it so often sits in an uncomfortable place in the voice. Despite some tuning issues in the more dissonant harmonies, the climax on the word “jacentum” was impressively emphatic and it was certainly nice to have a taste of Christmas at this festive time of year.
The second half opened with Frank Bridge’s spritely part song The Bee, which was delivered with a playful and energetic spirit that accurately reflected the euphemistic nature of the text. Following this were Herbert Murrill’s Two Songs from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which provided a nice contrast to The Bee. The text was well articulated in these two works and congratulations must be given to the sopranos for their gorgeous singing at such a high tessitura. Following a change in staging was Cecilia McDowall’s Ave Maria, which was, for me, the absolute highlight of the concert. Sung by the upper voices from the back of the church, the hauntingly beautiful sound washed over the audience creating an atmosphere of calm and tranquility. The undulating dissonance and consonances of McDowall’s writing were brought out in a way that could be described as nothing short of heavenly. Martin’s rhythmically exciting Ecce Concipies provided excellent contrast to this serene mood, and the ostinatos that were flawlessly passed between parts were well-balanced by following melody lines.
‘the choir delivered an emotive performance, and Palazzo’s passion was immediately clear through his conducting’
Palestrina’s Exultate Deo was sung in a scrambled formation, and was performed with energy and bounce throughout. My particular favourite moment was the explosive Alto 2 entry on the word “buccinate”. Choral classic The Lamb by John Tavener provided yet another staging change, wherein the choir surrounded the audience in a large circle around the perimeter of the church. Despite some uncertainty on the initial tutti entry, the choir delivered an emotive performance and, with Palazzo standing right next to me to conduct this work, his passion for the work was immediately clear through his conducting.
The concert closed with Bach’s Lobet den Hern, Alle Heiden, superbly accompanied by Matthew Kelley on the organ; the added instrumentation provided a pleasant change to the texture of the ensemble the concert. The work was performed with impressive energy for the end of a long and challenging programme and the closing Alleluia was an exciting finish to a varied and skillfully presented concert.
Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable concert which showcased the ensemble’s ability. Although I would perhaps have liked to have seen a little more thematic coherence in the programme, especially since some of the works seemed to have more connotations with summer than winter, the repertoire was well prepared and musically sung by all. Congratulations must be given to Manager Eleanor Hunt, Assistant Manager Emily Beringer, and, of course, to conductor Marcello Palazzo for their hard work in organising the concert. I look forward to hearing what the Chamber Choir can deliver in their Chapter House concert next term.