Best of British: choral music of the last 150 years

Praise for this spectacular concert given by the choir at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, 28th September 2004

“Take him, earth, for cherishing, in particular was really good, one of the best performances of it I’ve heard by an amateur choir.”

Clare Stevens, Assistant Editor Classical Music Magazine. Best of British, September 2004

Something for everyone

This was a programme that contained something for everyone, from a choir that is well known for its quality of programming and execution of performance. It was a shame therefore that there wasn’t a larger audience to appreciate this excellent concert

The first half contained some wonderful standard repertoire items and the concert began with the Vaughan Williams antiphon Let all the world, followed by Stanford’s Magnificat for Double Choir – a magnificent piece sung with real attention to detail and texture, aided by the judicious placement of the voices. Elgar’s Give unto the Lord was a particular treat, though perhaps even more drama could have been injected into this dramatic work. The Holst Nunc Dimittis which followed was a particular highlight, whilst the contrast of Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens to conclude the first half was overwhelming and left the reviewer in tears as he went for refreshment at the interval.

A more dry-eyed second half revealed more recent treasures, and the Britten Hymn to the Virgin, though perhaps a little on the brisk side, revealed an exquisite balance between the choir and the semi-chorus quartet who had magically appeared in the organ gallery, using the acoustic space in St Martin’s to best effect. Then followed Howells Take him Earth for Cherishing and Walton’s Jubilate Deo, with again some fine solo singing, whilst Tavener’s The Lamb was reverently and expressively presented, displaying a wide range of musical nuance and sensitivity throughout.

In true Vasari form, the last three items were also from contemporary British composers, and the choir showed how at home it is with this style of repertoire. Jonathan Dove’s Ecce Beatam Lucem was well paired with Divo Aloysio Sacrum by James MacMillan. The final item of the concert was Francis Pott’s My Song is Love Unknown, set to the familiar words of that hymn. This was perhaps not the right place to put such a long piece, as the audience’s attention seemed to wander towards their buses home during this admittedly splendid performance.

Jeremy Filsell, the organist for the concert, played to a very high standard throughout. He used the Walker instrument well, though perhaps some of the registration was a little eccentric, particularly in the Elgar. From where this reviewer was seated he skilfully accomplished a satisfying balance between choir and organ throughout, though with any concert where the organ is at the West End and the choir at the East End, there will always be a difference of opinion on balance between the audience at the back of the church and those in the middle or front.

This was singing of the highest standard, and Jeremy Backhouse, the director, is to be congratulated on a varied programme which gave something to each member of the audience, yet allowed for the voice new music to be heard. I am looking forward to Vasari’s forthcoming contemporary programming, especially for the choir’s 25th anniversary next year, for which 10 new choral a capella works by British composers have been specially commissioned.

© Jonathan Newell, September 2004

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