Virtuoso Display by Choir of Trinity College Cambridge

Pärt, Tavener, Parsons, Tallis, Bach, Poulenc, Ešenvalds, Bannister, Howells, Britten: The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor), Cheltenham Music Festival, Cheltenham College Chapel, 14.7.2013 (JQ)

Arvo Pärt – Bogoroditse Djevo
John TavenerMother of God, here I stand
Parsons – Ave Maria
Tallis –Salvator Mundi
Loquebantur variis linguis
J.S. Bach (arr. Guillou) –
Sinfonia from Cantata 29 (Elly Kornas (organ))
Poulenc – Exultate Deo
Salve Regina
Ēriks Ešenvalds Let the People Praise Thee, O God
Peter Bannister – Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae
Howells – I heard a voice from heaven
Britten – Rejoice in the Lamb [(Soloists: Bethany Padsyge (soprano); Lucy Prendergast (alto); Cameron Richardson-Eames (tenor); Mike Craddock (baritone). Jeremy Cole (organ)

Less than fourteen hours after taking part in fine performances of Poulenc and Fauré in, Gloucester Cathedral (Review), Stephen Layton and his Cambridge choir were back in action but this time they had the stage to themselves.

Cheltenham College Chapel is a substantial Victorian building. All the seating is arranged choir stall-style, facing inwards on either side of a central aisle. The organ is in a substantial loft at the rear. The pulpit is situated on the north wall of the chapel about halfway down. Previously when I’ve attended choral concerts here the choir has sung from the steps of the high altar. You may wonder why I’m describing the layout in such detail: it’s relevant. As the starting time approached I was slightly surprised to see the members of the choir dispersing themselves among the audience. Were we to experience ‘Guerrilla Singing’ in the first item? What followed was something unprecedented in my experience.

With Stephen Layton conducting from the pulpit the choir sang the first five pieces in their programme from these seemingly randomly selected positions. The music flowed as an unbroken sequence with no intervening applause. Several of the singers were so positioned that it would have been impossible for them to see the conductor properly, if at all, yet the singing was consistently precise and the ensemble work tight. This was a remarkable feat of musicianship, especially when one considers the demanding nature of the music, and clearly it was the result of intense concentration and the singers listening keenly to each other. Furthermore, all the music was sung from memory and, in fact, the entire concert, consisting of complex, stretching music, was given without a copy in sight; this, I think, made the choir’s performances all the more remarkable. I suppose a slight downside to the random positioning of the singers was that if you had a singer placed close to where you were sitting that singer’s part would tend to dominate what you heard; I had a male alto singing – very nicely – about two feet from my left ear! However, any such imbalance was a minor inconvenience, more than offset by the sense of being inside the music. The audience was drawn in by true surround-sound. It was a wonderful sensation, for example, to experience the glorious ‘Amen’ at the end of Parsons’ Ave Maria with the complex polyphony literally being woven around you. The performance of Loquebantur variis linguis was very different in nature from the one I’d heard by The Tallis Scholars a few days earlier (review) and it would be both wrong and impertinent to suggest that one was ‘better’ than the other. However, the sheer thrill of Tallis’ exuberant celebration of Pentecost came across in a new and exciting way when the music was heard, as it were, from the inside. During that performance the chapel seemed to be buzzing with sound. By contrast, the simplicity of the lovely piece by John Tavener, an excerpt from his massive The Veil of the Temple, recorded by Layton in 2003 (review), was all the more striking on this occasion.

One of the college’s organ scholars, Elly Kornas, gave a sprightly account of Guillou’s Bach transcription while the choir regrouped in a more conventional layout on the altar steps.

One of the college’s organ scholars, Elly Kornas, gave a sprightly account of Guillou’s Bach transcription while the choir regrouped in a more conventional layout on the altar steps.

The two Poulenc motets, one joyful the other prayerful, stood in intelligent contrast to each other; both were extremely well done. I first became aware of the music of the Latvian composer, Ēriks Ešenvalds, though Stephen Layton’s fine disc of his music, recorded with his choir, Polyphony (review). Today we were offered a more recent piece, Let the People Praise Thee, O God. Much of this impressive piece was based around chant-like music, either for solo tenor or for sections of the choir, but elsewhere when the writing opened up there were some fascinating harmonies to savour. Peter Bannister’s piece, which was also new to me, involved block chords which were often dense in texture. This challenging harmonic language must be very tricky to balance let alone bring off successfully but the Trinity performance sounded splendidly assured. We were on more familiar territory with the music of Herbert Howells. I heard a voice from heaven is a movement from his radiant Requiem (1932). Layton and the Trinity choir made an exceptionally fine recording of the Requiem a couple of years ago (review) so I wasn’t surprised to find that their performance of this extract was equally fine. The achingly beautiful music was put across with complete conviction in a fervent performance during which several solos were well taken by choir members; the unnamed baritone making a particularly strong impression.

In the festival programme this concert was given the title ‘Virtuoso a Capella’ (sic). In fact that title was slightly incorrect; while the performances were most certainly ‘virtuoso’ in every respect, the final item in the programme, Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, requires an organ accompaniment, which was provided, expertly, by organ scholar Jeremy Cole. He played an improvisation on the soprano solo (‘For I will consider my Cat, Jeoffrey’) while the choir processed down the chapel and up into the organ loft to sing this final work. I’ve never quite come to terms with Rejoice in the Lamb and I think the trouble is that I struggle to comprehend Christopher Smart’s words. This performance, however, was one that I enjoyed very much for it was performed splendidly and with great clarity and conviction. The four soloists all distinguished themselves and though it may be invidious to single out individuals I admired the expressive singing of tenor Cameron Richardson-Eames while the clear, silver tone of soprano Bethany Padsyge was particularly pleasing.

The entire programme was given as a sequence with no applause – this unbroken concentration was most welcome – so by the time the choir got to the end of the Britten they had richly deserved the very warm ovation that they received. Very rightly, their encore was a ‘fun’ piece, a close harmony arrangement by Ken Naylor of the standard At Last by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren. The choir sang this with great pizzazz and evident enjoyment. At the end of this unaccompanied piece Jeremy Cole joined the last chord from the organ console. That can be a risk but, of course, it wasn’t here: even after all the close harmonies and modulations these excellent young singers were bang in tune with the organ!

After delighting Cheltenham with this superb display of a cappella singing the Trinity College choir will be on tour in Germany for the remainder of July; details of the concert dates and venues can be viewed here. If, as I suspect, they are taking this programme on tour it will be well worth hearing should you be able to get to any of the concerts.

This year the Cheltenham Music Festival has been celebrating several composer anniversaries but in 2014 it will have its own 70th birthday party! Full details will be announced next year but some tantalising snippets of advance information have been released. Nicola Benedetti is to be Guest Director; other leading artists will include Benjamin Grosvenor and Mark Padmore; and the Festival will salute Sir John Tavener, also 70 next year, who will be the featured composer; the programme will include a new work from him. As they say, watch this space.

John Quinn