The Durham University Chamber Choir beckons some of the finest vocal talent into a unique collective. Tonight, the Chamber Choir truly epitomised this belief. Within the awe-inspiring venue of Durham Cathedral’s Chapter House; [Director] Josh Ridley, emulsified the acoustics of the venue with an exceptional programme, one which would highlight the unity of the choir, whilst allowing more soloistic opportunities in Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles. Complementing Talbot’s work in the latter half of the concert, the preceding works looked at the choral traditions of Russian composers: Lvovsky; Tchaikovsky; and Sheremetev.
The concert opened with: Blessed are they whom Thou hast chosen by the Russian composer Gregor Lvovsky. The unity of voice adjoining the tenor and bass parts was immediately evident, creating a lush; homogenous tone quality throughout, highlighting exceptional voice blending by the singers. The sonority of the basses throughout, even in exceptionally low registers is commendable. The clear direction from Ridley, resulted in great phrasing and interpretation by the singers.
The second piece saw the choir perform Invocation to sleep by Tchaikovsky. It was welcoming to have the upper voices join the choir at this point, with the varied format of mingling all voice parts together; shows a uniquely clear interpretation by Ridley, to create sound quality he desired. Unfortunately, this variation had slight repercussions in terms of tuning, with some of the larger downward leaps seeming rather awkward at times. The intonation was, however, generally good, with only a few slight harmonic imperfections. This is of course, a result of singing unaccompanied vocal repertoire. It was also impressive that the choir was unanimous in their diction of the Russian text, which although was at some points slightly unclear, portrayed a clear sense of musicality and detailed interpretation of the text and music alike. The distinctive variations in dynamics highlighted the choir’s ability to sing with a consistently rich tone quality in both quiet and loud passages. When we reached the antiphonal passages between sopranos and tenors, the dynamic and tone was matched, albeit creating a slightly strained tone from the upper voices at points, when the material moved into a higher register. Once the singers had settled into the new character, they lulled into a more relaxed flow.
The final work of the first half was by Aleksandr Sheremetev: Now the Powers of Heaven. Here, once again, the prominence and richness of the bass part was evident, producing a steady and consistent support to the rest of the voices. The slow harmonic change of this work, allowed for the choir to mould their voices into a lush; collective sound, which resonated around the Chapter House with presence. The dynamics were generally fine, with perhaps the idea of creating a softer environment in the quieter passages. The transition into the livelier Moderato section was exquisite, with the singers quickly grasping the new character.
The latter half of the concert was highly anticipated by the audience. Joby Talbot’s epic; Path of Miracles is based on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage across Europe culminating in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the resting place of the body of St James. Written for an astonishing seventeen parts, the twenty-three-strong choir handled the challenge with precision and clear musical interaction with the text’s meaning.
The first movement saw the lower and upper voice parts segregate. The lower voice parts remained in front, whilst the upper parts entered to the rear of the audience, creating a reverberation of sound, encapsulating the audience entirely. The first major solo of the work was sung by countertenor Lewis Cullen, who projected the sound clearly into the audience, supplying a pure sound quality and vivid text depiction. The nature of the work meant that many of the choir’s members were given the chance to sing solo inflections, allowing for a change of character and vocal colour throughout. This did, however, leave many singers rather exposed on particularly difficult passages. The bass solo, sung from behind the audience, was set in an extremely low register and as such was occasionally inundated by the rest of the choir.
The third and fourth movements were a personal favourite of the entire concert, displaying a clear transition in character and colour from the opening two. The lively section in the fourth movement was enacted with enthusiasm and clear technical proficiency. It is somewhat common for choirs to relent towards the end of large scale works, however, here the Chamber Choir continued with strength, keeping tight rhythms and clean harmonic changes to the very end.
Talbot’s Path of Miracles is an extremely challenging choral epic, with its exposed entries, rather unorthodox vocal techniques, and excessive ranges; it is a truly astounding feat for both choir and director to have performed the work to such a standard. The concert overall was a huge success and received a unanimous standing ovation from the audience upon finishing. Special mention must go to the choir’s director; Josh Ridley, who not only selected an inspiring programme for both audience and choir, but displayed exceptional direction over the choir. The choir’s recent success must also be attributed to the executive committee, especially their Manager: Sophie Rudge. I will finish by highlighting that this concert has been one of the finest I have had the opportunity to attend whilst at Durham, and I look forward to the choir’s future endeavours over the coming year.