As this was the Dunelm Consort’s first concert since becoming affiliated to Music Durham, and their first of this academic year, this was sizing up to be a very exciting evening. The consort consists of singers from the University and wider city, and does not have weekly rehearsals. For this reason, tonight’s repertoire was prepared with only a small number of rehearsals. The evening itself was well attended, especially given the horrendous storm that was raging outside the Cathedral precinct.
John Browne’s five-part Salve Regina I opened the evening, and despite some initially nervous solo verse entries, the complex melismatic lines were very accurate as the piece progressed. Particularly impressive was the warmth of the tenor and bass chordal entries, and an impressive overall dynamic control in the chorus sections. The final chorus exhibited an impressive unfolding from the two-part texture of sopranos and basses. The final phrase ‘O dulcis Maria, salve!’ is very controlled, and Mr. Allsopp doesn’t allow the ensemble to ‘run away’ with this final phrase.
The second item, Walter Lambe’s Nesciens Mater, featured very melismatic passages of verse that blended well given their technical difficulty. The imitative lines in the tenor and bass were especially distinct given the large acoustic. Neither this item nor the opening item were conducted too stringently, allowing for these experienced performers to express their parts in a more florid way, with communication aimed within the ensemble rather than simply at the conductor. This is a refreshing recollection of this polyphonic music originally being read from single part-books rather than full scores, something that no doubt increased the need for communication between performers.
The first half of the evening was then rounded off with John Sheppard’s complex six-part Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria. This piece alternated between chorus, verse and plainsong, and although at times the soprano line overpowered the texture, the expressive parallel motion in the inner parts – and some arresting false relations – were given effective foregrounding. Solo verse provided a crisp, clear harmony that was nicely contrasted with a warmly rousing, rather than overly-charged, final choral entry before the final lines. This ensemble achieved an excellent choral blend here, without sacrificing characterful interaction.
The second half opened with Byrd’s Rorate Caeli Desuper. A rousing refrain was followed by some of the evening’s most pleasing solo verse, and although more could have been made of the transition to the Gloria, the final phrases showed much more dynamic equality between sections than in previous pieces.
The somewhat more well-known Ave Maria by Robert Parsons followed this. Using original period pronunciation and word setting, the ensemble gave this relatively simple motet a faithful representation. Despite the lower parts getting a bit excitable at the beginning of the Amen, the dynamics were well controlled and the piece ended with a subdued sense of elation.
Finally, the second large work of this evening was also the final item. Gaude Gloriosa by Thomas Tallis had some wonderfully empowered choral entries on the ‘Gaude’ of the alternating full sections. Although the verse soloists struggled at times to stay in pitch with one another, particularly in the two-part sections, this is not surprising given the lack of implied harmony with which modern musicians are accustomed to working. Some particularly strong full chorus entries were found towards the end of this piece, and although at times the chorus could have been more visually involved, there was unity at all the important moments. Very dramatic tenor and soprano interaction was a highlight of this piece, with the lower parts in expressive dialogue with a climactic rising sequence in the soprano line at the end of the final chorus.
Overall, this evening was of a very high standard. The repertoire had a clear unifying theme, and some rare and challenging items interspersed along with some more familiar pieces. The ensemble itself produced and assured and intimate sound, and it was a pleasure to see a real sense of co-operation between director and singers. At times it did feel as though some ensemble members were not ‘in the moment’ during solo sections, and indeed some soloists were stuck somewhat to their scores, but the overall accuracy and crispness created real vitality, and these assured performers didn’t seek anywhere to ‘hide’ in this impressive acoustic. The evening was a real treat and clearly well received by a very windswept audience.
Given the resounding success of this evening, we look forward immensely to 2017, when the consort will team up with instrumentalists to tackle a programme of Handel’s music for royal occasions, and then Bach’s St John Passion.