On the last evening of term before Christmas, the Durham University Choral Society presented their concert ‘On Christmas Night’; this performance was in the acoustically challenging venue of Elvet Methodist Church under the direction of Daniel Cook. The concert was based around two large-scale scale works, ‘Saint Nicolas’, and ‘Ceremony of Carols’ both by renowned British composer Benjamin Britten, and with additions such as ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ and ‘Fantasia on Christmas Carols’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The concert started with Britten’s ‘Saint Nicolas’, it was a delight to see such a vast number of musicians working together. For this large-scale work many additional members were required. This included the strings of Durham University Palatinate Orchestra, tenor soloist Simon Lee, organist Francesca Massey, members of the Cathedral Consort of Singers, three Choristers from the Cathedral Choir and Finlay Gorden and Charles Gurnham in a piano duet. The Cantata – based on the legendary life of Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, Lycia- was performed with a sound that most definitely matched the visual spectacle of such immense forces.

As the first movement began, an extremely elegant violin solo by George Perkin soared over the texture of shimmering strings. It was at this point that we first got a glimpse of the overall sound of the combined ensembles and there was an awe of peacefulness as tenor soloist Simon Lee entered with his first phrase. I felt at this point, however, there was a slight flatness in  the upper register of both choir and soloist. Moreover , the balance was also rather uneven at this point with the strings unfortunately muffling the sound of both choir and soloist to the point that the diction was hindered. That said, of special note here was the sound of the string ensemble; they produced extremely detailed and finely tuned passages and this showed the ensembles’ capacity to play extremely well together.

The Cantata – based on the legendary life of Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, Lycia- was performed with a sound that most definitely matched the visual spectacle of such immense forces. 

In the second movement it was a pleasure to hear the angelic voices of three of the Cathedral Choristers; their voices paired well with the string accompaniment and created a pleasant contrast to that of the choir’s timbre. The third movement was sung solely by tenor soloist Simon Lee; this was extremely well sung, with a warm tone and lyrical flow to each phrase. His command of the upper register was exceptional, albeit a little flat in pitch at times. Most of the movements were sung without fault and were all very musically enacted through the clear direction of Daniel Cook and the outstanding accompaniment figures from the strings and organ alike. While the entry by the tenors and basses in the fourth movement was uncertain in character, and the diction suffered as a result, the entries by the Consort of Singers were generally very well handled. Due to their placing in the venue, they could have afforded to be louder at times. Closer attention could also be paid to the blending of voices as there were instances of several voices standing out of the texture.

The following movements were equally delightful to listen to. The choir’s ability to follow Daniel Cook’s direction meant that many details were enacted swiftly and with a high regard of musicianship. Overall, however, there were times when dynamic instruction was not enacted on which resulted in a rather monotonous dynamic throughout several movements. It was a pleasure to hear the choir’s interpretation of ‘Saint Nicholas’ and for them to be accompanied by such talented musicians; this was surely a fantastic experience for all. Special mention must be given to Simon Lee for his excellent solo role, and to Francesca Massey and the strings of Durham University Palatinate Orchestra for their outstanding performances respectively.

As Daniel Cook stated: ‘no concert is complete without ‘In Dulci Jubilo’, and as promised the second half began with the Choral Society’s performance of the all time classic. The tone was noticeably warm here, and extremely lyrical. At this point, without the strings, the choir’s diction was immediately elevated, and the choir’s blend, now finally started to settle. That said, there was still not much dynamic contrast at all and the balance was rather upper voice heavy. Generally, however, this was a very pleasant performance and interpretation of the carol.

Up next was Britten’s ‘Ceremony of Carols’ – written in 1942, as a series of twelve unrelated songs. The variety within this collection is immense, beginning and ending with a Gregorian chant. Of special note is that the work is scored for choir, and solo harp; here played by Mathilde Rouhi. The choir could have performed this solely as a concert work but instead added theatrical elements to its performance. The sopranos and altos started the work by processing around the church singing the first song – the Gregorian chant. This worked extremely well, allowing the sound to travel to every corner to the venue, and truly added to the performance overall. As expected, the balance between harp and choir is a fundamental challenge of the work and, for the most part, this was handled well.

The work also allowed for many of the choir’s own members to take on challenging solo roles. Most notably by Katy Moorhouse, Sam Hutchinson, Sophie Reed, Georgie Elliot and Melody Bishop. All sang their lines extremely musically, and their vocal talent- through intonation, phrasing, and alertness- was evident when they sang. On occasion, certain solos could have been slighter louder, and this would have helped with diction. Moreover, it would have been nice to have heard phrases sung a little more musically and shaped accordingly. Of special note, however, was the duet between Sophie Reed and Sam Hutchinson in the tenth song ‘Spring Carol’; their voices complimented each other wonderfully, and soared across the texture as if in conversation. One must also mention song eight – the ‘Interlude’ – a Harp solo, played extremely elegantly by Mathilde Rouhi. As the interlude progressed, it was evident that Mathilde is a very accomplished performer, and the peacefulness and serenity that was felt in the church during this song was truly magical. The use of dynamics to grip the listener to the lyrical, and flowing line was very well handled, as was the sense of phrasing, intonation, and interpretation of this very challenging and exposed passage.

The concert ended with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia on Christmas Carols’, with baritone soloist David Millross, and organist Francesca Massey. The nature of the solo line is very challenging but David Millross handled this very well. His voice blended nicely with that of the choir and the projection was also very good generally. While the sound was unfortunately rather ‘flat’ in both tone and pitch, the evident musicianship meant that the solo line was an extremely pleasant addition to the choir’s own sound. At times, the true potential of the choir shone through producing a powerful and focused tone; this showed the true cohesiveness of the choir to create a truly wonderful blend and warm acoustic sphere.

Overall, a very pleasant concert, and a great end to the term! It was a great opportunity to hear some very under performed works, and hear such wonderful interpretations of such, by some of the most accomplished musicians in Durham. Special mention but go to Daniel Cook, for his work in getting to the choir to such a high standard; also to soloist Simon Lee, for a truly wonderful solo performance, and to Francesca Massey and Mathilde Rouhi for their incredible performances on organ and harp respectively.