Last night, as the term draws near to its close, we were treated to a selection of challenging repertoire performed by Durham University Choral Society, alongside baritone soloist Phil Normand, and organist, Imogen Morgan. Under the direction of Daniel Cook, the concert’s repertoire moved smoothly through works by Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Howells and Parry, showcasing the best of the ‘English Musical Renaissance’.
The Michaelmas Concert began with a performance of Stanford’s ‘Three Motets’, for unaccompanied choir; ‘Justorum animae’, ‘Beati quorum via’, and ‘Coelos ascendit hodie’. The choir instantly opened with a well-blended, warm and enthusiastic sound, which filled the notoriously dry acoustic in Elvet Methodist Church with relative ease. Moving through the first motet, there was a slight tendency for the intonation to fall flat, especially among the upper voices, but this was swiftly recovered, and moving throughout the three motets, there were some lovely top notes amongst the sopranos, which soared beautifully above the texture. There were also some tentative entries, but once the parts had all entered, they weaved together effortlessly. In particular, the final motet was an absolute delight to listen to.
Following the Stanford was a performance of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Five Mystical Songs’, accompanied by soloist Phil Normand. Normand shone upon opening ‘Easter’, the first of Vaughan Williams’ songs, with his solo demonstrating an effortless baritone register, which was both powerful but soared with ease. The choir matched Normand’s opening with a bright and glowing sound, which was continued throughout. The choir were also sensitive to Normand’s solo line, knowing when to hold on as the song neared its conclusion.
The rest of Vaughan Williams’ five songs were equally impressive, with more excellent solo singing from Normand in both ‘I got Me Flowers’, where the choir demonstrated a strong Forte at the end, and ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’, where yet again, Normand’s solo voice shone against a simpler accompaniment. Despite still being a delight to listen to, the addition of a quiet accompaniment beneath Normand’s solo to an ‘ahh’ sound at points fell a little flat; whilst presented with a lovely dynamic, the vowel sounds could have been more open and souring at this moment. To finish off, the choir gave a rousing rendition of the final Mystical Song, ‘Antiphon’, sometimes more commonly known as ‘Let all the World in Every Corner Sing’. The final song was powerful throughout, with strong diction exercised by the Choral Society. However, some moments could, perhaps, have demonstrated a stronger sense of dynamic contrast, so as to give even more power to the crescendos leading back into the piece’s iconic refrain.
Following the interval, the audience were treated by an organ solo by Imogen Morgan, who currently holds the post of Senior Organ Scholar at Durham Cathedral. Beginning with a rendition of ‘Saraband in Modo Elegiaco’ from ‘Six Pieces for Organ’, Morgan displayed great sensitivity, as the piece slowly but steadily built to a dramatic and powerful climax. This piece in particular was a brilliant example of Howells’ lush use of harmony and tonality. The use of flattened and raised sevenths whilst approaching a perfect cadence in the opening bars set the scene for a piece paradigmatic of Howells’ lush tonal landscapes, which were played with absolute ease by Morgan. The second piece by Howells, Rhapsody No. 1 in D flat, Op 17, was played with equal ease and thoughtfulness by Morgan. The piece built beautifully from a quiet and reflective start, into a lush and emotive middle section, before slowly fading away. The absolute technical precision of Morgan’s playing allowed the music to wash over the audience, splitting up the selection of choral works throughout the concert perfectly.
Moving onto Parry’s ‘Songs of Farewell’, the choir warmed into the first of the pieces; more could have been made on the crescendo on the opening line, ‘my soul’, and the quieter sections could have demonstrated even stronger dynamic contrast, but these dynamics really improved throughout the opening song. Some lovely soaring top notes from the soprano section in the opening song were also noteworthy. The soprano section also demonstrated some lovely octave leaps in the second of Parry’s ‘Songs of Farewell’, proving that the upper voices had overcome any earlier hesitation and intonation issues demonstrated in the Stanford. Although some of the fugue section in the third song, ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ momentarily became lost, some skilful work by both Daniel Cook their conductor, and a very attentive choir, meant that this was swiftly recovered. The fifth song, ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’, started with a lovely, well-blended forte sound, with excellent balance demonstrated by the choir. Although the harmony took a while to settle in the male voices after the first general pause, this was, again, recovered as the piece moved on. The final of Parry’s ‘Songs of Farewell’ similarly found its feet after some uncertain entries. There was some notable phrasing on the word ‘nothing’ in the final of Parry’s songs, which was achieved with ease; especially impressive work from a larger ensemble.
All in all, Durham University Choral Society, as well as soloists Normand and Morgan, worked through some very challenging pieces to an extremely high standard. There was generally a very strong balance across the choir, although the altos could perhaps have broken through the texture more at points. The repertoire could also have benefitted, at times, from an even stronger display of dynamic contrast, although the full, forte sections shone nonetheless. Special thanks must be extended to Daniel Cook, as this was his last performance conducting the choir after two years. During these two years, the ensemble has tackled some demanding repertoire in venues such as Durham Cathedral, continuing to display musical sensitivity and flair in doing so. Thank you to all involved, and we look forward to Choral Society’s next performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah’ in Durham Cathedral on 12th March.
Oscar Elmon & Kirsty Dempster