Within the beautiful setting and acoustic of Durham Cathedral, the Durham University Chamber Choir (directed by Josh Ridley) presented Time is Forgotten, a programme centred around the theme of life and death to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. The programme was well suited to the high levels of musicianship which flowed from the choir, which was present in the swelling of sound throughout the nave.
The concert opened with Vaughan Williams’ the Turtle Dove, which saw the tenor soloist standing in-front of the audience, whilst the remainder of the choir processed from behind, into their respective places. The solo was projected clearly into the audience, with a pure yet rich quality. A second solo by Matthew Jackson was equally pleasing, with the sound produced portraying great musicianship and control. It would have been nice to have seen the solo originate facing the audience, as this perhaps would have eased the projection towards the rear of the audience. Following this, was Media Vita by John Sheppard. The opening being performed by a sextet form the front. Having four choirs spatially separate allowed for a more immersive experience for the audience, but also brought its challenges. The balance was generally very good between the four choirs, with some voices proving difficult to blend into these smaller groups. It was delightful to witness the resonance of the bass part, especially brought forward by Will Sims. This work was performed to an extremely high standard of musicality, there were just a few moments of intonation and tempo discretions in the second Sancte Deussection that were apparent.
The third work was a rarely heard work: A Wonderous Birthby the Russian neoromantic composer Georgy Sviridov. The Russian text was enacted with precision and provided a truly authentic sound. This particular work really highlighted the musicianship of the choir, with the pieces intricate harmonies coming out triumphantly. The choir’s voices also blended fantastically, with the choir sounding almost as one through much of the work. The climax, producing an almost Wagnerian ‘wall of sound’ which resonated throughout the Cathedral and elicited a strong emotional reaction in the most powerful sections. The direction of the choir by Josh Ridley was also highly noteworthy, with the choir reacting to the slighted changes in articulation, dynamics or phrase structures.
The next work was Flanders Fields by Paul Aitken, with it’s characteristic repeated vocal accompaniment, unfortunately slipping out of synchronisation slightly from one side of the choir to the other. However the harmony and intonation were again clearly very musically fashioned. At times, it was hard to make out the melody clearly, whilst at others, the accompaniment projected too greatly. The first half rounded off with the first of the pieces by Eric Whitacre: A Boy and a Girl. Again, it was hard to find anything of fault with much of the musicality of this work. The phrasing and intonation were very detailed and executed by the choir extremely well. The immaculately finely tuned humming throughout emphasized the level of talent within the choir and how each member works to create a homogenous sound, with the help of their director Josh Ridley.
The second half opened with the Three Shakespeare Songs by Vaughan Williams. Each of the three songs showed the collective sound of the choir. The balance was yet again extremely good, although in the ‘Ding Ding Dong’ motif, the alto part appeared too high for many of the countertenors who, at times distracted from the more mellow sound of the altos and the rest of the choir. The diction was generally very good even in the especially quiet passages. It was notable however, that the text in the fast passages could have been articulated slightly more, due to the nature of the acoustic in the amazing space of the cathedral nave.
The next piece was perhaps my favourite of the concert. Only in Sleep by Eriks Esenvalds was truly remarkable. Contrasting greatly from the other works, it was also highly contrasted to the composers more often heard work Stars. The piece opened with a beautifully crafted solo by Amy Porter, who demonstrated great care in portraying the emotion of the music, whilst remaining focussed on the blend and acknowledgment that there was also a choir providing the vocal accompaniment. This was also very carefully sung, with the choir’s members perfectly balancing against each part.
The following work by Herbert Murrill: Come Away Death provided a definitive contrast to the Esenvalds, which it’s far more dissonant harmonies and more complex part writing. It is impressive therefore that the choir managed to start this work with the desired mood from the very first chord. The choir carefully moulded the subtle dissonances throughout, being careful to detrude them above the overarching structure of the music.
The last work of the concert was another work by Eric Whitacre: When David Heard; a huge fifteen minuet work which surrounds the audience with the heartbreak and sorrow of King David upon hearing the news his son Absalom has been killed. The characteristic building of the texture into an enormous cluster chord on the words my son was staggeringly powerful and emotional. The tenor solo performed by James Draper was well executed, producing a pleasing tone and a clear sense of control in the upper register. There were many awkward leaps within the work, with some of the downward leaps lacking conviction and confidence, to really settle on the lower note. The use of silence, which director Josh Ridley conducted extremely clearly created a delightful atmosphere throughout the work. With the return of the first section again, towards the end, it was also noticeable that the voices blended exquisitely, and that the balance and tone quality was constant throughout the choir. The movement between chords was generally very tight and the sound became perfectly unified.
Overall, the Chamber Choir selected and produced an exceptional programme of music to elicit the emotions founded form the centenary of the First World War. The choir remained homogenous throughout, with the solos portraying a clear sense of musicianship within its members. Furthermore, the sound of the choir and of the programme was extremely well suited to the surroundings of Durham Cathedral, and the large audience size encapsulated the choir’s solid reputation. The greatly awaited encore: a medley of Harry Potter tunes (arranged by Josh Ridley) provided a slightly livelier ending to the concert and which received a resounding end to a great evening of music.