Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Heaven on Earth

It was St. Augustine who said, “He who sings, prays twice.” I was thinking of that statement yesterday as I was enjoying the heavenly performance by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge under the excellent direction of Stephen Cleobury in a beautifully balanced programme of liturgical and liturgically centered music.

Right from the first notes of William Byrd’s Rorate coeli, I was captivated by the richness of these young voices, so richly nuanced, singing with a purity and uniformity of sound. Indeed, the clarity of the choir’s diction was readily apparent in their performance of John Mundy’s Sing Joyfully.

I was reminded of the choir’s long and distinguished tradition when it sang Orlando Gibbons’ This is the record of John. Gibbons, as the excellent programme notes informed us, was a former King’s chorister when his elder brother was Master of the Choristers! (Much like the Vienna Boys Choir could boast of Franz Schubert as a former member.) In addition to the beautiful tenor solo, I was struck by how the meaning of the text was underscored by the choir’s singing of this work and in Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis that followed.

Almost as a segway into the French choral music that followed, organ scholar Richard Gowers gave an atmospheric performance of Le Gibet, the second movement in Maurice Ravel’s monumental Gaspard de la Nuit. Gowers successfully brought out the frightening stillness of the music while giving it forward direction.

Olivier Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium was an incredible challenge for any choir in accuracy of pitch and tuning, and it was no surprise at all that these young choristers so excellently rose to the challenge. The choir brought out the darker hue as well as the beauty in dissonances in the music. At the end of Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, Op. 11, the choir held on to the final chord slightly longer than the piano accompaniment, thus allowing the sound of their beautiful voices to linger in the air for a brief moment. The choir followed with Maurice Duruflé’s setting of Ubi caritas, and ended the first half with a wonderfully lively performance of Francis Poulenc’s Hodie Christus natus est. In the Poulenc work, I noticed the incredible, almost instrument-like flexibility of the choir.

After the interval, the choir began the second half with Henry Purcell’s dramatic Jehovah, quam multi sunt. There are some effective examples of word painting in this work, effects that the choir brought out beautifully: the sudden feeling of repose in their singing of the line, “Ego cubui et dormivi” (I laid me down and slept), as well as how the singers highlighted the fragmented melodic line in, “dentes improborum confregisti” (Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly).

The concert followed with two works by Giovanni Gabrieli – Exsultavit cor meum and O magnum mysterium. In the first of the two works, I couldn’t help but wonder how the overlapping entries would sound within the acoustics of Venice’s Saint Mark’s Cathedral, where Gabrieli was principal composer. The choir’s sense of timing was impeccable in O magnum mysterium, where the composer gave us the piquant effect of a syncopated  “Alleluia”. The singers brought out the richness of Purcell’s harmony in I was glad, as well as the beautiful dark colours in his setting of the line, “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

King’s college organ scholar Henry Websdale brought out the contrapuntal clarity in his performance of Gibbons’ Fantasia (1612) on the lovely sounding chamber organ, a very nice change of palate before the final works of the concert.

After Anton Bruckner’s Christus factus est, the choir continued with Charles Villiers Stanford’s O for a closer walk with God. In the Stanford, there was a lovely blending between the voices of the boy soprano voices with the voices of the older choristers. In the line “a light to shine upon the road”, there was a wonderfully effective outburst of sound from the choir. For the final line, “that leads me to the Lamb,” the choir gave us an incredibly beautiful and plaintive decrescendo towards the end. Two more works, Percy Whitlock’s peaceful Jesu, grant me this, I pray and Johannes Brahms’ Schaffe in mir, Gott (Op. 29, No. 2) ended this richly rewarding afternoon of music.

Throughout the concert, I kept wondering about the sound of the choir within their magnificent Chapel. Within the Chan Centre, the choir sounded, to my ears, slightly dry. I can only imagine that in the King’s College chapel, with the choir sing facing each other and the tall ceiling that reaches the heavens, there would be much more resonance, more “bloom” in the sound of the voices.

What a joy and privilege it was to hear this justly famous choir. And what a life it must be for these young men, living and breathing great music from morning to evening, at the same time receiving a world-class education. Whether or not they go on to become professional musicians, I am certain that this kind of experience will serve them well, personally and professionally, for the rest of their lives.

Patrick May
March 27, 2017

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