Two totally contrasting choral concerts teased the mind and emotions on consecutive nights.
First, an ageless scene was set for Ex Cathedra’s imaginatively-produced Christmas Music by Candlelight.
Soft light melted through the discreet stained-glass windows defining lofty curved roof arches in this simple but beautifully-proportioned church.
A cornucopia of Christmas gems was on offer, from the choir processing to the measured heart-beat from a French-style drum, to subtle candles highlighting faces into an illusory mediaeval tableau.
“Music opens our hearts”, quoted from a thirteenth century reading, spoke to all present. Thought-provoking words were interspersed between the vocal offerings, delivered clearly and with conviction from within the choir, as were notable anonymous solo voices throughout the evening.
This choir is a beguiling blend of timbres with every individual composition being treated with unique consideration.
As ever, conductor Jeffrey Skidmore marshalled his performers with discretion throughout. Ancient and contemporary works shone with a whole gamut of committed musicality.
Ethereal solos were offset by sturdy male octaves, beguiling bell effects ringing out, high threads from melding sopranos disappearing into our imagination. Occasional accompaniments ranged from gentle chamber organ from Andrew Fletcher, to a roaring improvisation prior to audience participation.
Altogether, a wonderful pre-Christmas treat.
King’s College Choir was a more cerebral affair, directed by Stephen Cleobury.
Town Hall acoustics exposed less than perfect diction, doubtless a total contrast to the singers’ familiar and more resonant ecclesiastical settings.
Fresh young voices charmed throughout the evening, but occasionally fell short with less than clear text. One suspected that the youngsters were simply tired.
Plainsong links in the Praetorius Magnificat were pure, but the dogged delivery elsewhere seemed expressionless. “Rejoicing, Alleluia, exultation” – all are portrayed in Schütz’s Christ is Born, but were these emotions reaching the hearts of the singers or was this simply an exercise and too familiar?
Poulenc’s Four Christmas Motets were a total contrast, with tender shifting harmonies and interested commitment throughout. Messiaen’s organ meditation sent powerful impacting shock waves as organist Peter Stevens gave full throttle, particularly to the lower notes and somewhat un-angelic typical bird passages.
Velvety basses set the scene for part of the Rachmaninov Vespers, quasi chanting sung in soft-edged Slavonic. This is very accessible music with heart-stopping full harmonies highlighting the undoubted quality of the full choir.
Good to hear lovely compositions of seasonal offerings from our own John Joubert, and Judith Weir, both setting 15th century texts to great effect and being performed with loving care.
Finally, a Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Vaughan Williams and two delightful encores for the appreciative capacity audience.