Concert reviews

 

Chamber choir delights its audience

There was disappointment and delight for St Albans Chamber Choir and its audience at its concert on Saturday, July 1.

The disappointment came because so many members had been struck by a summer bug that a performance of Francis Poulenc’s delightful Quatre Petites Prierès had to be dropped from the programme.

And the delight was provided by Isabel Kernthaler who demonstrated her fine ability as a saxophonist by providing the soprano sax accompaniment in Karl Jenkins’ A Parliament of Owls. The Jenkins work was originally written to include a saxophone and the addition of the instrument to last Saturday’s performance at St Saviour’s Church in St Albans added an amazing lift to the overall sound. Isabel’s performance was a real treat.

The concert had opened with German composer Carl Orff ’s Laudes creaturarum, which was then followed by four well sung pieces from his far better known Carmina Burana.

Then followed William Walton’s complex and beautiful Cantico del sole, which largely uses the same works as the first Orff piece. The Cantico is very demanding on the choir but the members under musical director John Gibbons gave a very fine performance.

Works by 16th century French composer Clément Janequin and Monteverdi followed before the first half ended with Jonathan Dove’s extremely complex but amusing and delightful setting of the nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin?

More modern music opened the second half with Eric Whitacre’s beautiful setting of Rudyard Kipling’s The Seal Lullaby. Another movement from Carmina Burana, Olim lacus colueram, followed together with works by Adriano Banchieri and Orlando Gibbons before the fine performance of A Parliament of Owls.

The choir was accompanied on the piano by Nick Robinson, director of music at St Peter’s Church, St Albans. Nick also played four movements from Camille Saint-Saën’s Carnival of the Animals, a welcome chance to hear his excellent performing abilities.

Despite the difficulties caused by illness, the Chamber Choir members once more achieved a very good and entertaining evening of music.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser

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Chamber choir weaves ‘a tapestry of harmonies’

Music of the Renaissance and early Baroque has a style probably best heard in the music of The Sixteen, yet few amateur groups handle it better than the St Albans Chamber Choir.

Although they have a wide repertoire, which has included fine performances of works by modern composers such as Eric Whitacre and Will Todd, they always delight when they return to the early forms of music.

Saturday’s concert at St Saviour’s Church in St Albans was just such an event with a programme packed with some of the finest music from the period.

Starting with works by Orlande de Lassus and ending with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palastrina’s tremendous Stabat Mater, the whole evening was a heady delight of first class unaccompanied music.

The choir, under musical director John Gibbons, wove a tapestry of harmonies and fine sound patterns originally designed to fill ancient churches and court chapels of Europe’s nobility.

Without a doubt the best-known piece of the evening was Gregorio Allegri’s oft recorded Miserere, famed for the top C’s in the soprano part. A work which rarely fails to thrill, the chamber choir’s performance was exactly as expected.

Much less well known but equally exciting was Antonio Caldara’s amazing 16-part Crucifixus. A brief five-minute work, it has an intense beauty which the choir handled superbly.

No concert of music from this era by the St Albans Chamber Choir would be complete with- out music by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria and on this occasion, it was his Missa Salve Regina for double choir.

Adding another layer of interest to the evening was outstanding British lutenist Lynda Sayce, who performed two fine solos both by little known composers. The first was Vita in ligno moritur by Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl and the second, English composer Cuthbert Hely’s Fantasia in F Minor.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser

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Choir’s French fancy a ‘hit’

There is something about the music of 20th century French composers and those whom they influenced that many people find challenging and even off-putting. But Saturday’s concert by St Albans Chamber Choir with a programme entirely from this genre proved just how thrilling such music can be…
Yes, it was challenging, in the best possible way but it was also stimulating and completely approachable.

The opening work, Swiss- born composer Frank Martin’s splendid Mass for Double Choir, was probably the best known of the works on offer. Although not perfect, the choir’s performance was a great achievement as they filled St Peter’s Church in St Albans with wonderful waves of sound.

For the choir the mass is a big sing and members probably welcomed the short break which followed as St Albans Cathedral’s assistant master of music, Tom Winpenny, played Jehan Alain’s outstanding but once more challenging Second fantasy for organ. It is a fascinating piece full of colour and energy but one which requires an almost athletic performance by the organist to manage not only the keyboards and pedals but also the many stop changes.

Frances Poulenc’s O magnum mysterium and Olivier Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium rounded off the first half.

Probably the least well known of the composers whose works made up the second half was Carl Rütti whose setting of the Nunc dimittis was probably my favourite work of the evening. For the choir, this 13-part work presents many challenges for those singing it, not least that different sections only sing fragments of the text. And at the heart of the piece is a fine tenor solo, sung by Geoff Ward, which tends to bring the whole totally atmospheric work together.

Rounding off the evening was the Messa solennelle by the blind French organist and composer Jean Langlais.

Congratulations to the choir and its musical director John Gibbons for having the faith to put together such a daring and challenging programme and the ability to achieve such a successful and thoroughly enjoyable performance.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser

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1133_Durufle-by-candlelight_400pxChamber Choir Requiem concert shows the way

One of the delights of concerts by the St Albans Chamber Choir is that musical director John Gibbons frequently springs surprises.

Often it is a performance of a work by a little-known composer or a neglected work by a well-known one and occasionally he puts his own twist into something with outstanding results.

Saturday’s concert by the choir at St Peter’s Church in St Albans was full of all three starting with Charles Villiers Stanford’s wonderful and all-too-rarely performed unaccompanied Magnificat for Double Choir, a powerful and joyous work which made a fitting start to a concert where the first half was made up mainly of 20th century English music.

The choir followed with the setting of Psalm 130 – Out of the depths I cry unto thee – by the little known English composer George Lloyd. At the heart of the work is a stunning soprano solo, delightfully sung by Joanne Scott. Yet another little-known English composer is Edmund Rubbra and here John Gibbons introduced his own twist to the composer’s Song of the Soul. Normally performed with just an organ accompaniment, John added a cello part to Saturday’s performance which was exquisitely played by Michael Wigram.

The first half ended with Parry’s At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners from his Songs of Farewell, a fine and moving work well handled by the choir.

A feature of the first half of the programme was two short organ solos by St Albans Cathedral Organ Scholar Nicholas Freestone with Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament and In Paradisum by the French organist Jean-Yves Daniel- Lesur.

The main work of the evening was Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. While the work itself is undoubtedly a masterpiece, the all-too-brief Pie Jesu which lies at its heart is its absolute highlight and on Saturday its performance by mezzo soprano Helen Charlston accompanied by Nicholas Freestone and Michael Wigram was, for me, the pinnacle of  the entire evening. Helen, former head chorister of the St Albans Abbey Girls’ Choir and founder of Amici Voices, together with the two instrumentalists, produced one of those spine-tingling moments which will stay with me for a long time. The tenor solo in the Requiem was sung by Andrew Shepstone.

JOHN MANNING

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Bach B Minor Mass flyer header

Mass meets Bach’s hopes

One of  the pinnacles of  Johann Sebastian Bach’s huge career is his monumental Mass in B Minor yet surprisingly the great man never heard it in its entirety as it did not receive its complete performance until more than a century after his death.

But I would like to think that the performance given on Saturday by the St Albans Chamber Choir with the Lawes Baroque Players and four outstanding young soloists from the Amici Voices would have met his expectations.

The combination of the choir, soloists and orchestra in St Saviour’s Church, St Albans, produced a performance of exceptional quality.

The mass is a monumental work which demands great stamina from hose performing it but throughout the choir performed excellently. Its performance of the section of the credo beginning Et incarnates est de Spiritu Sancto was particularly fine.

Equally the four soloists, soprano Bethany Partridge, alto Helen Charleston, tenor Hiroshi Amako and baritone Michael Craddock brought real quality to the overall performance. These are young performers of great quality and talent which shone though in their performances.

But equally the outstanding performance by the Lawes Baroque Players, both collectively and individually, was an essential part of making a great overall impact.

The group, brought together by Harpenden-based violinist Miles Golding, is made up of some of the country’s leading exponents in the use of period instruments and throughout the evening the quality of the music they produced was an absolute delight.

One must not forget conductor John Gibbons who steered the epic work through its many changes in mood and tempo. His direction produced a sensitive and well regulated performance.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser, November 2015

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Dvorak3

St Cecilia Society shows why Requiem still matters

Congratulations to all concerned in the St Albans St Cecilia Festival Society’s presentation of Dvorák’s rarely-heard Requiem.

Few who heard it in St Albans Cathedral on Saturday could fail to agree that this powerful and dramatic work should be heard far more often.

But when he orchestrated the work he packed the orchestra with instruments such as hand bells, tubular bells, a harp and even an organ which all make very brief appearances but add greatly to the overall performance cost.

With a choir of around 120 drawn from Harpenden’s Hardynge Choir, the Radlett Choral Society and the St Albans Chamber Choir together with the St Albans Symphony Orchestra and four outstanding soloists, the performance was superbly controlled by St Albans– based composer, conductor and organist Alex Flood.

Alex made full use of  the fine harmonies in the work and was always in complete control of the complex dynamics of the work.

Unlike many other works the soloists do not have any real arias but their job is very much to work with and supplement the choir.

In this performance soprano Geraldine McGreevy, mezzo Clare McCaldin, tenor Mark Wilde and bass Jeremy White added greatly to the overall effect with very fine singing.

One of the great achievements of this biennial event is that it brings together members of  three very different choirs and always achieves a fine result.

This year the achievement was even higher because few, if any, of the amateur performers had performed the work in the past.

Although there were some small moments when things did not go completely right, the overall result was a good performance which shone a light on this little-known work of an all-time great composer.

The three choirs worked amazingly well together and with the orchestra, produced some truly great sounds.

Alex Flood deserves special thanks for daring to choose such an epic and little-known work for the evening. The performance left so many wondering why such a great piece of  music is so badly neglected.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser, 3rd December 2015

 

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Mozart Mass in C Minor

One of  the most outstanding results of the twinning between St Albans and the German city of Worms is the enduring link between two choirs.

For more than 45 years the St Albans Chamber Choir has linked up with the Wormser Kantorei either here or in Germany for biennial concerts and on Saturday it was the turn of St Albans to hear the result of this cooperation. As always the result was a spectacular evening, not only of music but of renewing old friendships.

For this year’s concert the two choirs and their conductors, John Gibbons and Stefan Merkelbach, were joined by the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra with soloists, sopranos Kim Sheehan and Cecilia Bailey, tenor Oliver Martin-Smith and bass Jonathan Saunders.

Opening with Josef Haydn’s Te Deum with Stefen Merkelbach conducting, the joint choirs immediately proved just how well they fit together, as well as their remarkable ability to function together in two different languages. It was hard to tell that the two groups of singers did not work together more regularly than once every two years as they produced extremely  satisfying  music. Stefan Merkelbach also took to the podium for one of the highlights of the evening, a performance of Mozart’s glorious Exultate, Jubilate with fabulous young  soprano  Kim Sheehan.Her performance of the amazing work was one of the finest I have ever heard. Her crystal clear yet powerful voice with her  great virtuoso skills more than did justice to the huge space of St Albans Cathedral

Between the two works the orchestra performed William Alwyn’s moving Tragic Interlude written in 1939 which ponders the futility of war. Conducted by John Gibbons, the work was a complete contrast to the rest of the evening but somehow its sombre tones married well with the joy of the rest of  the evening.

The main work of the concert was Mozart’s spectacular yet unfinished Mass in C minor which saw the return to the stage of Kim Sheehan and fellow soprano Cecilia Bailey together with Oliver Martin-Smith and Jonathan Saunders with John Gibbons conducting.

There are spectacular choral sections in the work which the joint choir handled extremely well. But above all the mass is a showcase for the principal soprano, the second soprano and the orchestra. Once more Kim Sheehan was spectacular in the role which was probably written for Mozart’s wife Constanze Weber but Cecilia Bailey more than held her own in the movements they sang together. The section where they were joined by the tenor, Oliver Martin-Smith, was excellent. One almost has to feel sorry for the Jonathan Saunders the bass for his only role in the entire work was a brief  solo in the final Benedictus.

Overall this was an evening which showed the sort of musical performance St Albans does  best – spectacular and excellent. In the splendid surroundings of the cathedral, it must create lasting memories for those taking

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser, April 2015

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Wynde, Whirlwinds and Flight

  Western wind, when wilt thou blow, that the small rain down can rain?
  Christ, if my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again!

John Gibbons continues to demonstrate the virtuosity of St Albans Chamber Choir with inspired, adventurous programming. Underpinning their concert on Saturday (28 February), Taverner’s Western Wynde mass was like a steady western breeze, buffeted by violent storms but returning each time unshaken to resume its task of carrying the Spring showers. The choir called up the wind and the whirlwind, accompanied by a stunning array of pyrotechnics from Robert Dixon on the magnificent St Peters organ. First they unleashed Vaughan Williams’ tempestuous account of two dramatic biblical events: the Lord answering Job out of the whirlwind, and Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures like aeroplanes. This is music that tests performers to the limit and it is to their credit that the audience found it thrilling rather than overwhelming. Not content with this, Robert Dixon treated us to a mind-blowing solo performance of Judith Bingham’s ‘St Bride assisted by Angels’, which built to a shuddering climax that threatened to strip the lead from the roof. The choir calmed us down with an interesting piece by Eric Whitacre, ‘Leonardo dreams of his flying machine. In the second half the thundery storms were regimented into what a forecaster might call ‘organised bands of showers’, with marches by Parry and Walton, and two more contemplative pieces, ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’, arranged by Timothy Salter, and Whitaker’s ‘Lux Aurumque’. The choir admirably met the challenge of switching between so many musical styles throughout, and as they concluded with Vaughan Williams’ moving anthem ‘Valiant-for-Truth, they and Robert Dixon had surely earned their own fanfare of trumpets.

 

Alan Knott

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Chamber is on top form again

Over many years of listening to the St Albans Chamber Choir works by early composers such as Thomas Tallis and Tomás Luis de Victoria have always proved to be one of their areas of strength.

So it was a delight to see a programme listing Tallis’ superb 40-part motet Spem in Alium together with Victoria’s Mass Lautatus sum and Josquin des Prez’s outstanding giant canon Qui habitat in adjutorio Altissimi.

Indeed the performance of the works at St Saviour’s Church in St Albans on Saturday was everything I had expected. Because of the large numbers needed for Spem in Alium and the des Prez work the Chamber Choir was augmented with a group of singers who are regular members of other choirs and the resulting sound was magnificent.

But for me the real highlight of the evening was the Chamber Choir’s performance of Jonathan Dove’s The Far Theatricals of Day. For this they were joined by an extremely good, but un-named brass quintet, organist Alex Flood and outstanding young local soprano Emma Huggett, the former head chorister in the Abbey Girls’ Choir.

Dove’s work, a series of settings of poems by the American poet Emily Dickinson is hugely exciting in its form, opening with a demanding soprano solo accompanied by trumpets.

It moves on through a complex series of movements using various soloists drawn from the choir and coupled with powerful sound patterns from the brass ensemble and organ before ending in a thoroughly delightful final duet between soprano and trumpet.

All the soloists gave fine performances but Emma Huggett’s performance was outstanding. Her clarity of sound and ability to accurately hit the highest notes time after time was an absolute delight. Equally the performances of the members of the brass ensemble and Alex Flood at the organ added hugely to the experience.

The other modern piece of the evening was a setting by John Gibbons, the choir’s conductor, of a poem by John Skelton, a favourite teacher of Henry VIII. The work, written in the late 1980s also makes use of the brass ensemble and demonstrates John Gibbons’ great ability to work with choirs.

All in all, a well performed evening of interesting, enjoyable and surprising music.

John Manning, Herts Advertiser, 30 October 2014

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Go Brazilian thumbnail 200px (web)Go Brazilian!

5 July 2014   St Peter’s Church

South American encounter

Summer concerts are often like a ‘friendly’ football game, with no pressure and a relatively undemanding programme. On Saturday St Albans Chamber Choir and their conductor John Gibbons  discovered that there is no such thing as a ‘friendly’ against Brazil. Any who were not at their peak of fitness must have found the going tough, as the South American strikers launched wave after wave of attractive, cleverly crafted, and difficult music.

Jean Berger was the first to test the St Albans team with his Brazilian Psalm (1941); hard on his heels came the veteran Juan de Araujo (1646-1712), with Los coflades de la estleya. Finally Heitor Villa Lobos mounted a sustained attack with his Bachianas brasileiras (1945), combining the German discipline of Bach with the flair and energy of Latin America. The Choir met all these challenges head on, with good discipline, particularly in softer passages, which allowed the words to be heard more clearly than they usually are in the St Peter’s acoustic. All this excitement, and we were still only half way through the first half. Then St Albans brought on two players who could beat the Brazilians at their own game. David Wigram, accompanied by Susie Arbeid (piano), launched his saxophone into a thrilling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s History of the Tango. The Choir brought us down to various places on earth with Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue, and it was half time.

The second half was more mellow, as if the Choir had won the respect of the Brazilians and could relax with some well known routines. Listening to Nicholas Hare’s fine arrangement of The Bare Necessities, followed by The Girl from Ipanema, we realised that the match had been abandoned in favour of a session of beach volleyball, and yes, the Tequila Samba. What could they finish with but The Best of the Beach Boys, which was encored with much applause and even dancing in the aisles by one young enthusiast.

A most enjoyable evening, better than the football.

Alan Knott

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Rachmaninov Vespers   

17 May 2014   St Albans Cathedral

Chamber Choir in the spirit 

There is something deeply spiritual about Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vespers,which was greatly heightened by the rare acoustic of St Albans Cathedral on Saturday evening.  Regarded as one of the greatest musical achievements of the Russian Orthodox Church, the unaccompanied work is as beautiful as it is intense, and St Albans Chamber Choir’s performance under its musical director John Gibbons demonstrated all its finest features to the full.

Although composed in 1915, the suppression of religion after the Russian Revolution meant that the work did not gain popularity until the 1960s but now it is regarded as one of the composer’s most important works along with his symphonies and piano concertos. Saturday’s performance with mezzo Lorna Perry and tenor Andrew Shepstone as soloists was a complete delight with fine definition and phrasing as well as accurate handling of the complex harmonies.  Both soloists gave fine performances, not just in the two demanding solo spots but also in the areas where they were required to stand out amongst the other choir members.

While the Vespers took up the second half of the evening, the first part of the programme was made up largely of religious works by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt together with Tolstoy’s Creed, one of the final works by the English composer Sir John Tavener who died last year.  For these the choir was accompanied on the organ by the Cathedral’s Assistant Master of Music Tom Winpenny.  The three Pärt works, The Beatitudes, Magnificat and Littlemore Tractus, together with the Tavener work all have mystical qualities which the choir exploited to the full, developing magical sound qualities which were enhanced by the Cathedral’s great acoustic .

One of the highlights of the first half of the concert was Tom Winpenny’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Transports de joie.  Although Messiaen’s music is not to everyone’s taste, the great French composer certainly knew how to get the best from an organ and Tom’s performance demonstrated this to perfection as the massive chords filled the cathedral with thrilling sound.

The only disappointment of the evening was the abysmally small audience for what was a tremendous evening of fascinating and delightful music.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser 22 May 2014  

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Pole Stars: musical gems from Poland

1 March 2014      St Saviour’s Church

Star-gazing at St Saviour’s

Ask anyone to name a Polish composer other than Chopin and the chances are they would be struggling, but those lucky enough to attend St Albans Chamber Choir’s concert in St Saviours’ Church in St Albans on Saturday will now have a few more ideas, for the Pole Stars concert opened a window onto a whole range of little-known composers across the ages who have, and in some cases still are, producing outstanding music.

It was an evening where the audience was immediately hit by a wall of splendid sound, in the shape first of Marian Borkowski’s Libera me, dating from 2005, followed immediately by the more tranquil Ego sum pastor bonus written around 450 years earlier by Waclaw of Szamotuly, and then Grzegorz Gorczycki’s Sepulto Domino and Stabat Mater from the turn of the 17th Century.

While these were all fine and quite delightful works from composers virtually unknown to English audiences, the next section dedicated to works by the 20th century composer Karol Szymanowski was a major revelation.  First up was his Nocturne and Tarantella for violin and piano performed by outstanding young Polish violinist Kamila Bydlowska and pianist Lucy Colquhoun.  From the dark opening of the Nocturne the music exhibited great power which the two young musicians explored to the full.  Then came Szymanowski’s amazing Six Kurpian Songs, bravely sung in Polish.  This really is music that is exciting and exhilarating, enchanting and explosive and completely full of life, but which is extremely demanding on those singing it.  The last of the six in particular was dazzling in its complexity but completely delightful and the overall performance was of great credit to the Choir.

After more charming 17th century music from Andrzej Hakenberger the Choir went on to the most recent piece, the beautiful Nunc Dimitus  written in 2005 by Pawel Lukaszewski.   Kamila Bydlowska and Lucy Colquhoun followed this with Witold Lutoslawski‘s fiendishly difficult and completely virtuosic Subito, a work written as a compulsory piece for a violin competition in the USA in 1992.  Once more Kamila’s performance was full of life and power and Lucy’s accompaniment outstanding.

Henryk Górecki, made famous by Classic FM’s promotion of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, may be the only other Polish composer known to a few regular listeners, and his often explosive work Salve, sidus Polonorum brought the evening to a crashing end.  Accompanied by two pianos, percussion and organ, the Choir once more ventured into Polish for this quite amazing work.  Although I have absolutely no idea just how good their Polish pronunciation was, I am certain that they rose to and completely mastered the challenge of this astonishing work.

The Choir and their musical director John Gibbons need more than the usual round of applause for presenting such a fascinating and exciting programme and for carrying off such a difficult task with aplomb.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser  6 March 2014

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The Christmas Story

7 December 2013    St Saviour’s

Festive feast has all the trimmings

The capacity audience at St Saviour’s Church for last Saturday’s concert by St Albans Chamber Choir was served a sublime Christmas feast of 16th and 17th-century music, its flavours enhanced by the rich tones of His Majestys Sagbuts and Cornetts.

To start, we enjoyed no fewer than ten sumptuous motets as walls of sound rose and fell and familiar Christmas tunes emerged.  It was like eating a whole plateful of delicious mince pies: there was a double helping of In dulci jubilo (Hieronymus Praetorius and Samuel Scheidt) and two pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli, O magnum mysterium and the twelve-part Angelus ad pastores ait, that particularly demonstrated the Choir’s skills and stamina.

John Gibbons, the Choir’s masterchef, constantly works with them on new recipes; this time he mixed the voice parts throughout the body of the choir, producing a full, well-balanced and rich blend of sound.  In Resonet in laudibus by Johannes Eccard, for example, soaring sopranos were under-pinned by perfectly tuned lower harmonies.

His Majesty’s Sagbuts and Cornetts brought their own specialties: the sackbut, a precursor to the modern trombone, and the cornett, a curved wooden instrument with finger holes like a recorder but with a trumpet-type mouthpiece, the sound of which was said to resemble closely the human voice.  First they skilfully entertained us with Samuel Scheidt’s Canzon cantionem gallicam, then were joined by early violins, viola, and bass violin for Hans Leo Hassler’s Canzon duodecimitoni, a conversation between two instrumental ‘choirs’.

The motets had not spoiled our appetite for the plum pudding, The Christmas Story by Heinrich Schütz, in which HMSC with Nicholas Hare, on continuo organ, accompanied the choir and soloists.  Rogers Covey-Crump (Evangelist) spiced up the long German narrative passages with flavour and colour, David Ireson made a suitably dark and full-bodied Herod, and the clear, pure voice of Emma Huggett (Angel) was suitably angelic.  She provided the icing on the cake with her brilliantly executed ornamental passages.

Well might the Choir conclude the piece with a joyous Preis sei Gott in der Höhe!– Praise be to God in the highest!

ALAN KNOTT

Herts Advertiser 12 December 2013

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St Cecilia Festival Society

2013 concert

26 October 2013     St Albans Cathedral

Four become one at St Cecilia Festival

Even after years of hearing the result, I still find it a marvel that four distinct groups of singers and musicians can come together and successfully perform a complex piece of music, but every two years that is exactly what happens in St Albans every second year, thanks to the district’s St Cecilia Festival Society which this year presented Brahms’ A German Requiem in St Albans Abbey.  Taking part were the St Albans Symphony Orchestra, the St Albans Chamber Choir, Radlett Choral Society and the Harpenden-based Hardynge Choir together with internationally renowned soloists soprano Geraldine McGreevy and baritone David Stout.

The programme opened with a performance by the Symphony Orchestra of Olivier Messiaen‘s symphonic meditations L’ Ascension, a work written in 1932 shortly after his appointment as organist at La Sante-Trinite in Paris.  A challenging and difficult work, the composition relies heavily on the brass and woodwind sections of the orchestra although there are some fine passages for the strings.  Although there were some moments where the openings of phrases were not quite together, the entire performance was one to be admired.  Conductor Bjorn Bantock brought the orchestra through the work with great skill to achieve an overall satisfactory performance.

Johannes Brahms’ great A German Requiem was of significant personal meaning to the composer, marking both the death of his mother and as a memorial to his friend Robert Schumann.  It is both moving and inspiring, yet although it draws its texts from the Bible, it does not follow the pattern of a mass.  From its gentle opening with the words Blessed are they that mourn, it moves on with powerful themes to its strong conclusion with the words Blessed are the dead.  In between there is outstanding music with the strong solo pieces for the baritone, Lord, let me know mine end, and Behold, I show you a mystery, as well as the soprano solo And ye now have sorrow.

David Stout, who proudly proclaims himself a citizen of St Albans, and Geraldine McGreevy, who sang the soprano solo in Britten’s War Requiem at the opening of the St Albans International Organ Festival earlier this year, both gave compelling performances.  The performances by the combined choir and orchestra were both good, although the combined choirs, which appeared to have a shortage of tenors, were often a little hard to hear.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser   31 October 2013

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Flowers of the Field        

20 June 2013    St Saviour’s Church

Simply enjoying the choir

CONCERTS do not need to be inspiring to be enjoyable – and that was the case on Saturday with St Albans Chamber Choir’s latest offering.  It was an evening which was simply packed with enjoyable and amusing music – mainly written by little-known composers.

Typical was the opening work, the first two sections of Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla’s Missa Ego flos campi, a delightful rhythmic piece of music full of rich sound patterns and one ideally suited to the Chamber Choir.

Slightly better known are the works of London-born composer Ernest John Moeran. His Songs for Springtime, seven settings of poems by 16th and 17th century writers including Shakespeare, Herrick and Nash, are a delight but within their sweetness there is often a slight quirkiness which adds to their attraction.  The remaining sections of de Padilla’s mass brought the first half to a close..

Bringing the concert fully into the 21st Century Bob Chilcott’s work, I Share Creation, uses a series oftexts from around the world to explore man’s relationship with the Earth.  It also requires the Choir members to stamp and clap a rhythm at the same time that they are singing – something that requires considerable concentration.

And their next set of songs, Paul Mealor’s cycle Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, was even more up-to-date.  It was written in 2010, a year before the composer sprang to fame when his work Ubi Caritas featured at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The cycle is a delight, with the title piece, a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the final piece, A Spotless Rose, translated from the German by Catherine Winkworth, being particularly fine.

The choir ended their evening with the extremely amusing Italian Salad, Polish-born composer Richard Genée’s delightful parody of an Italian opera using Italian musical terms and nonsense words to delightful effect. As with all the other works in the programme the Choir gave a great performance and regular member Andrew Shepstone “starred” in the solo baritone role.

Adding an extra boost to the whole programme were two fine performances by flautist Hattie Webster who, accompanied by the Choir’s conductor John Gibbons at the piano, performed Hamilton Harty’s fantasy In Ireland and Ian Clarke’s stunning Orange Dawn, composed in 1992 after a visit to the Great Rift Valley of East Africa.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser  20 June 2013   

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Sacré Bleu!

2 March 2013    St Albans Cathedral

Jazzing up the sacred music scene at the Abbey

THERE are those who say jazz has no place in sacred music but if anything is designed to prove them wrong it is Will Todd’s Mass in Blue.  Although this was originally commissioned by the Hertfordshire Chorus, it was left to the St Albans Chamber Choir to introduce it to the city two years ago.  Their performance in 2011 with Will Todd, his trio and Bethany Halliday was so successful that the Choir staged this weekend’s full-scale performance, again  with the composer and Bethany but this time with the full Will Todd Ensemble in St Albans Cathedral.  The result was a complete triumph for all concerned with a truly memorable performance which filled the Cathedral with tremendous sounds.

Although the Choir’s first performance of the work in St Saviour’s, St Albans, was a great success, Saturday’s event was head and shoulders better because of the huge impact the addition of saxophones, trumpets trombones and extra percussion added to the overall sound.  And even though the Chamber Choir is a relatively small group, they more than held their own against the might of the Ensemble.

Once again their overall performance showed the Choir to be on top form.  Mass in Blue is now a highly-rated piece of music and Bethany Halliday’s performance helped demonstrate just why it is so successful.  She is a phenomenal performer who, with the backing of the excellent Ensemble and Choir, gave a performance which thrilled to the core.

The Choir demonstrated their tremendous musical dexterity in a programme which also included Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.  This work opened the concert and the Choir performed it in its original version, scored for percussion and harp and organ with Chris Kimber, percussion, Ruby Aspinall, harp, and organist Tom Winpenny.  The only point where conductor John Gibbons deviated from Bernstein’s original directions was to replace the boy treble soloist with a girl, in this case former St Albans Abbey Girls’ Choir member Emma Huggett who currently sings with the Hertfordshire County Youth Choir and who has recently passed her audition for the National Youth Choir.  Emma’s performance of the solo in the second movement of the psalms – Psalm 23 – was both fine and moving.  The fact that the words are set in Hebrew did nothing to handicap her skilful handling of a musically difficult piece.  Overall the work demonstrated the great ability of the Choir, as did their final piece of the first half, Anthony Saunders’ joyous arrangement of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm.

Between the two first half pieces Will Todd, Bethany Halliday and members of the Ensemble performed three fine jazz numbers, Somewhere Over The Rainbow , Willow Weep for Me and How I Wish I Knew How It Was To Be Free.

The only problem with the evening was a comparatively small audience.  A lot of regular concert-goers missed out on an evening of very exciting and well­ performed music.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser  7 March 2013   
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Centenary Celebrations

19 January 2013    St Peter’s Church

Cutting Edge

ALTHOUGH the works of many English composers are seeing a great renaissance the same cannot be said of George Lloyd.  The Cornish composer, who died in 1998, was hugely prolific in his output and was often highly praised in his lifetime but he is little known today.  One of his champions is St Albans Chamber Choir’s musical director John Gibbons, so it is perhaps not surprising that the composer’s final work Requiem, completed just three weeks before his death and dedicated to Diana, Princess of Wales, was the first work to be performed by the Choir in the centenary year of Lloyd’s birth.

Lloyd was no lover of many of the musical affectations of his era and the performance at St Peter’s Church on Saturday demonstrated his delight in melody and harmony.  For the concert the Choir was joined by tenor Michael Solomon Williams and organist Tom Winpenny, who both helped demonstrate some of the finer moments of the Requiem. Although I felt the work was not as rounded as some by composers of the same era, there were some very fine moments including the joyful Hostias and the Agnus Dei, a fine tenor solo.  The high spot of the entire work was the final Lux Aeterna where choir, soloist and organist came together in magnificent style.  Throughout the work Tom Winpenny’s performance was first class and the Choir also achieved an excellent standard.

The second half of the concert started in a slightly different style to the norm for the Chamber Choir when they became part of the audience while Michael Solomon Williams was joined by pianist Susie Arbeid and the Wigram Quartet for a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song cycle On Wenlock Edge.  All six performers did full justice to the beautiful setting at A.E. Housman’s wistful words although one might have wished that Michael Solomon Williams’ voice had a little more power.

The second birth centenary to be marked in the concert was that of Benjamin Britten, born just a few months after Lloyd.  For this the Choir sang Rejoice in the Lamb, the short cantata with words taken from the quirky poem of Christopher Smart. One of the delights about the work is that the sections are set not just for the choir but also for soprano alto, tenor and bass soloists and in this case they were excellently sung by Choir members Joanne Scott, Alice Knight, Geoff Ward and Andrew Shepstone.

For devotees of 20th Century English music this was a thoroughly interesting and entertaining evening where the Choir’s performance bodes well for its next concert at St Albans Abbey in March when the main work will be Will Todd’s spectacular Mass in Blue.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser  24 January 2013  

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The World is Burning

24 November 2012    St Saviour’s Church

A step too far for Choir

As usual there were some fine moments in St Albans Chamber Choir’s latest concert but sad to say it was not up to the group’s normally  high standard, the main problem being that there was too great a distance between the singers and their audience at St Saviour’s Church.  For some reason a decision had been made to sing almost the entire concert from the steps of the high altar, leaving a huge void between the Choir and those who had come to listen to them.  While this worked in a small number of pieces, others were almost impossible to hear, a great pity because the programme was packed with extremely good music.

The opening work, Sir John Tavener’s complex The World is Burning, worked perfectly well, possibly because the semi-chorus which sings a large part of the work was to one side and nearer to the audience.  Typical of Tavener, much of the beauty of the piece comes from its strange dissonant harmonies which the Choir handled with great ease.

But the second piece, Heinrich Schűtz’s motet Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, was the first to demonstrate the mistake of singing so much of the concert so far away from the audience.  Not only was it extremely difficult to hear the singing but the gap also appeared to highlight a weakness amongst the Choir’s sopranos.  The same comments also apply to the performance of Samuel Barber’s wonderful setting of the Agnus Dei which uses the music of his Adagio for Strings, which came later in the programme. Sadly there were also some problems with JS Bach’s great motel Singet dem Herrn, a piece the Choir has often performed before.

However, one of the pieces did not suffer by being performed at a distance from itsaudience – Jonathan Rathbone’s O Nata Lux.  This beautiful and moving piece was originally commissioned by Choir member Alan McGlynn in 2008 in memory of his wife and was first performed by the Choir exactly four years ago. Saturday’s performance was just as moving and delightful as the first.  The Choir only really demonstrated its full potential in the final number, Jonathan Dove’s Ecce Beatam Lucem, when it moved forward to the position it normally uses when singing at St Saviour’s.  Instantly the sound quality had more dynamism and the Choir appeared to have more vitality.

One of the saving graces of the evening was the solo performances by Tom Winpenny, assistant Master of Music at St Albans Cathedral.  His performances of JS Bach’s Choral prelude on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and Anton Heiler’s Variations on the same theme were both well up to the standard we have come to expect from this outstanding organist.

In all this was a concert of interesting music, where an experiment in the way it was presented sadly simply did not work.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser 29 November 2012

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 A Night with the Birds

22 September 2012   St Saviour’s Church

Pianist Alissa makes Messiaen for Chamber Choir

Although Olivier Messiaen is regarded as one of the most important French composers of the 20th Century it is fair to say that much of his music is difficult to listen to and extremely difficult to play, but Alissa Firsova’s performance of two of his pieces as part of St Albans Chamber Choir’s concert on Saturday was outstanding in quality and clarity. The young St Albans-based artist played Messiaen’s extremely difficult Le Merle Bleu and the more approachable La Colombe together with Russian composer Mily Balakirev’s dazzling Skylark in the concert entitled A Night with the Birds which ranged across more than five centuries of music.

At the heart of the evening was a performance of Orlande de Lassus’s stunning Missa Entre vous Filles, a work which showed the choir off at its very best. The quality and balance of sound which filled St Saviour’s Church was superb. The choir was equally comfortable with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ever-popular setting of the folk song The Turtle Dove and Charles Villiers Stamford’s poignant The Blue Bird.

One rather surprising event was what the choir’s musical director John Gibbons claimed was the world premiere of an intriguing and quite complex but attractive work, I am the Song that Sings the Bird, by David Bramhall, the surprise being that such an attractive piece was only receiving its first performance eighteen years after it was written.

The one work of the evening which I felt was a little disappointing was Les Sirenes by the little-known French composer Lilli Boulanger, younger sister of the more famous Nadia, who died in 1918 aged only twenty-six. Set for sopranos and altos and just one tenor, the piece, at least for me, simply did not work. Alissa’s performance of Balakirev’s Skylark, also known as A Farewell to St Petersburg, however, most certainly did, and after her excellent performance of the two Messiaen works this gave the Russian-born musician an opportunity to show off her tremendous flare and virtuosity, to the obvious approval of the audience.

The choir wrapped up the evening with an excellent performance of Jonathan Dove’s often solemn, yet amusing and extremely complex version of the children’s nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin?

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser (27 September 2012) 

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Monteverdi  Vespers of 1610

19 May 2012         St Albans Cathedral

Period piece for Choir at the Abbey

WITH some of the best period instrumentalists and leading soloists taking part, the performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 in St Albans Abbey on Saturday should have been one of those performances no music lover should miss.

But in spite of everything that was going for it, St Albans Chamber Choir’s annual visit to the Abbey failed to attract the sort of audience one might have expected and overall the evening was not quite the success it should have been.

Yes, the six vocal soloists, soprano Anna Crookes, mezzo Clare Wilkinson, tenors Simon Wall and Nicholas Hurndall Smith with baritones Gregory Skidmore and Charles Gibbs, all from the group I Fagiolini were all excellent as were the instrumentalists including The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble.

And the members of the Chamber Choir also sang extremely well but in spite of everything the performance did not quite jell. There was an unfortunate lack of balance, almost certainly due to a shortage of tenors, and this was most noticeable in some of the sections where the choir was divided into voice parts but that aside, the overall performance was still a great musical experience.

The Vespers is most certainly a work of its own time and, in some ways, it is as difficult to listen to as some very modern compositions, Monteverdi used many difficult techniques to achieve the brilliance of his composition which in parts is quite florid, reflecting the Italian operatic style of the time. But nonetheless it is a masterpiece which deserves to be heard in a fine setting with outstanding period musicians.

Conductor John Gibbons made good use of the Abbey’s fine acoustics particularly in parts where he could dispatch soloists and instrumentalists to more distant parts of the building to achieve very fine effects.

In spite of the very minor shortcomings, the overall result of the evening was a thoroughly interesting and absorbing performance, the only major downside being the paucity of audience members.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser (24 May 2012)

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Double Bill

17 March 2012   St Saviour’s Church

Better late than never for Choir’s Martin Mass

ALTHOUGH Swiss-born composer Frank Martin wrote his Mass for Two Choirs in the 1920s it was almost forty years before the work had its first public hearing.  Martin said he had felt the Mass was an affair between God and himself, but today this intriguing work is exposed to a much wider audience.  It is a complex, somewhat mysterious work of many layers and influences, and St Albans Chamber Choirs performance at St Saviour’s Church in St Albans on Saturday once more demonstrated the Choir’s ability to perform difficult pieces. The Mass has difficult tonalities and the composer uses the two choirs to achieve tremendous sound qualities, all of which the singers handled well. During the Credo the work takes on an almost Greek or Russian Orthodox feel with a sustained low bass line which the Choir delivered superbly.

Martin’s Mass was the central work in a concert of pieces written for double choirs which started with William Henry Harris’s setting of Edmund Spenser’s poem Faire Is the Heaven, a piece with difficult tonal variations and dynamics which move in waves.

Although the lives of Frank Martin and Joseph Rheinberger overlapped, the style of Rheinberger’s Mass in E flat is stylistically generations away from Martin’s Mass. Written as a piece for liturgical use and an extremely easy piece to listen to, it was well within the competence of the Chamber Choir and the resulting performance was both joyful and thoroughly pleasing.

In an interlude from the singing, husband and wife duo Harvey Dagul and Isabel Beyer performed two piano duets, Mozart’s Andante and Variations for Piano Duet and the Tarantella from Grand Sonata for Piano Duet by Rheinberger.  It’s hard to believe that the couple has been playing together for more than sixty years, for their performance still has great fluency and freshness.

The choir ended the evening with Charles Villiers Stanford‘s tremendous Magnificat for Double Choir.  Although Stanford is well known for his contribution to Anglican Church music, including several Magnificats, this work for double choir is unusual in that it uses the Latin text. The Chamber Choir’s performance was a fine ending to an interesting, if sometimes challenging, evening.

The programme once more demonstrated the ability of conductor John Gibbons to stretch a choir and successfully achieve interesting performances of music in widely different styles.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser (22 March 2012)

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A Boy was Born

3 December 2011     St Saviour’s Church

Choirs united for Britten concert

To hear one really good choir is always a delight but to hear two performing together in the same concert is something really special, and that was what made Saturday’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s youthful extravaganza A Boy Was Born so exciting.

The performance at St Saviour’s Church in St Albans by the hugely experienced and well-drilled St Albans Chamber Choir together with the superb voices of the St Albans Abbey Girls’ Choir really made a very special evening. Written when Britten was just 19, and dedicated to his father, A Boy Was Born is one of the most complex works that choirs can be asked to sing: the last section in particular is not only very fast but also employs numerous techniques to build up its elaborate sound patterns.  Indeed it is so complex that there are those who claim Britten over-did it, but Saturday’s performance showed just what can be achieved in this really compelling work. Most important of all for me was the tremendous clarity of sound the two choirs achieved and the fact that the sumptuous effect, reminiscent of pealing bells, came through loud and clear.  Both choirs worked extremely hard to produce this performance and the Girls’ Choir really shone through in its performance of the third variation, Jesus, As Thou Art Our Saviour.

The first two works of the concert, Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina’s Hodie Christus Natus Est and Giovanni Gabrieli’s O Magnum Mysterium showed the Chamber Choir off at its well-practised best, as did the settings of the same words by French composer Francis Poulenc which were included in the second half.  The opening number of the second half was a triumph for Choir member Nicholas Hare, who is a well-known music editor and arranger. The piece was the premiere of his latest composition, Welcome Redemption’s Dawn, a very pleasing setting of words written by his wife, Susan.  Unfortunately the Choir was badly depleted by coughs and colds so John Tavener’s splendid Hymn to the Mother of God was lacking some of the power one might have hoped for but nevertheless, it was a very sound performance.

The Abbey Girls’ Choir under its director Tom Winpenny took up much of the rest of the second half with quite beautiful performances of Peter Warlock’s The First Mercy andBethlehem Down together with Herbert Howells’ O My Deir Hert and Vaughan Williams’ In Bethlehem City.

The whole evening was wrapped up by the Chamber Choir under its musical director John Gibbons, with a performance of Andrew Carter’s extremely amusing version of TheTwelve Days of Christmas.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser (8 December 2011)

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St Cecilia Festival Concert 2011

Mendelssohn Elijah

22 October 2011     St Albans Cathedral

St Cecilia’s miracle continues

One of the miracles of music in St Albans is the fact that the city’s biennial St Cecilia Festival Society concert ever works, for the concert is performed by an amalgam of four separate musical organisations – the St Albans Symphony Orchestra, the St Albans Chamber Choir, the Radlett Choral Society and the Harpenden-based Hardynge Choir but as usual Saturday’s concert in St Albans Abbey, a performance of Mendelssohn‘s great oratorio, Elijah, conducted by the Hardynge Choir’s musical director Rufus Frowde, was a huge success.

The massive work, first performed just a year before the composer’s death in 1847, makes huge demands on all those taking part but in Saturday’s concert all showed themselves equal to the task.  All three choirs had clearly worked extremely hard in the run up to the event and the result was some extremely pleasing music, although like so many choirs the chorus had a distinct lack of tenors.  Particularly pleasing was the performance of the wonderful unaccompanied trio Lift thine eyes in the second part.

For the orchestra the oratorio is something of a tour de force with more than two hours of constant playing but they accomplished the task with great style and their performance was extremely pleasing.

Once more the St Cecilia Society chose a group of young soloists all at the beginning of their careers. And all four, soprano Katy Crompton, mezzo Angharad Lyddon, tenor John Pierce and bass Marcus Farnsworth all gave first class performances. Marcus Farnsworth, who sang the role of Elijah, proved just why he was this year’s song prize winner in the Kathleen Ferrier Competition with his fine performance throughout. Angharad Lyddon and John Pierce both have very fine voices and gave excellent performances throughout but it was Katy Crompton who was, for me, the star of the evening. Not only does she possess an outstanding voice but she added a real touch of drama to her performance which lifted it far above the norm. It would not surprise me to hear a lot more of her in the future.  St Albans Cathedral Choir treble Alec Newton gave an excellent performance as the child in the first half of the oratorio.

Rufus Frowde must also be congratulated for his excellent work as conductor of such a huge event. The Hardynge Choir is truly fortunate to have such an outstanding director.

John Manning

 Herts Advertiser (27 October 2011)

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Water, water everywhere

2 July 2011     St Saviour’s Church

Chamber Choir makes a splash with water-themed concert

 Although St Albans Chamber Choir‘s latest concert went under the name of Water, Water Everywhere, it could also have been called Cacophony to Polyphony, so diverse was the range of music.

The cacophony (almost) came in the rather strange and extremely challenging setting of Spenser’s The Waves Come Rolling from The Faerie Queen by Richard Rodney Bennett. This is a work which on first hearing appears to have no real musical form – in fact as conductor John Gibbons suggested, if anyone turned their radio on in the middle of it, they would probably turn off at once. Nevertheless, it is an important element of Bennett’s cycle Sea Change, and it also proved the versatility of the members of the Choir in succeeding satisfactorily to perform such a difficult work.

The final part of the cycle is a setting of Shakespeare’s Full Fathom Five, one of three settings performed on the night, the others being by Vaughan Williams and the Finish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. Of these, the Vaughan Williams setting is the best known and, from the Choir’s point of view, the most challenging, but the other two, particularly the Mäntyjärvi, are both well worth listening to.

The choral highlight of the evening was the performance of Cloudburst by the American composer Eric Whitacre. In this extremely atmospheric work the choir was accompanied by the handbell group the Columban Ringers from St Columba’s College inSt Albans. Again the choir proved its versatility as it merged clapping, finger clicking and even loud breathing into the wonderful sound patterns Whitacre creates, but while the performance was well executed, I felt the Choir was not really big enough to achieve the full effect of these extraordinary sound effects.

The watery theme of the concert also included John Whitworth’s setting of The Mermaid, originally commissioned for the King’s Singers, an extremely amusing piece, and Bob Chilcott‘s Weather Report.  Rounding off the concert were a series of very jolly song settings, starting with Vaughan Williams’ Ward the Pirate and Jonathan Willcocks’ arrangement of What shall we do with the drunken sailor, the fine arrangement of Ol’ Man River by one of the Choir’s own members Nicholas Hare, and ending with Andrew Carter‘s I do like to be beside the seaside.

Another highlight of this rather strange but totally amusing concert was three fine piano solos played by former Royal Northern College of Music student Seb Grand. These were Liszt’s LégendeNo 2, Debussy‘s Prelude Ondine and John Ireland‘s The Island Spell.  Seb, who is due to begin a Master’s course at theRoyalAcademy in September, proved himself to be a fine performer.

John Manning

Herts Advertiser (7 July 2011)

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The sea, the sea

30 April 2011      St Albans Cathedral

Choirs’ joint concert is perfect pairing

IN more than 40 years of partnership between the St Albans Chamber Choir and the Wormser Kantorei there can have been few joint concerts quite as impressive as their performance in St Albans Abbey on Saturday.

For the first time the two choirs teamed up with the St Albans Symphony Orchestra and the central work of the evening was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ epic A Sea Symphony. For any choir and orchestra to reach the standard of performance which was achieved on Saturday would have been tribute enough to the musicians but the fact that the two parts of the choir were rehearsing hundreds of miles apart in St

Albans and its German twin town, Worms, is an even greater tribute to their two conductors, John Gibbons of the Chamber Choir and Stefan Merkelbach of the Kantorei.

Coupled with an excellent performance by the St Albans Symphony Orchestra and outstanding soloists soprano Anna Gorbachyova and baritone Toby Stafford-Allen the evening was one to remember.  Vaughan Williams’ work, a cross between a symphony and a cantata, has at its heart poems of the American Walter Whitman and throughout, the often deep and brooding music depicts the ever-restless sea and the wind. John Gibbons, who conducted the epic work, constantly ensured that the orchestra never overpowered the singers and achieved a finely balanced overall performance. It is around 30 years since the symphony was performed in St Albans but if anyone wants to hear it again, I understand the members of the Wormser Kantorei were so impressed with it that they have already decided it will be the central work of the joint concert the two choirs will be staging in Worms in 2013.

The first half of the concert opened with Alan Rawsthorne’s prelude and nocturne written for the 1950’s film The Cruel Sea, an all too brief insight into the works of a composer who is yet to achieve the prominence he deserves.  Equally Johannes Brahms‘ quite beautiful Schicksalslied,the piece in the concert chosen by the Wormser Kantorei and conducted by Stefan Merkelbach, is another piece of music worthy of much wider recognition. Rarely heard in this country the work, typically Brahmsian in its style, was, once more, quite exquisitely performed by the orchestra and joint choirs.

John Manning

Herts Advertiser (5 May 2011)

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Intimations of mortality

12 March 2011     All Saints Pastoral Centre

Music Director gets moody for Chamber Choir

IN his introductory comments at the beginning of St Albans Chamber Choir’s concert in All Saints Pastoral Centre, London Colney, Music Director John Gibbons focused on the title and mood of the programme, which could be seen as arising from the association of all of the choral pieces with violent deaths, either recent or to come, dependent on when they were written.  Sombre the antecedents may have been but the music that emerged provided the audience with a programme which was sustaining in every respect.

The first piece, William Byrd‘s Infelix Ego, a setting of a meditation on Psalm 51 (the Miserere) by the already tortured and soon to be burnt priest Savonarola, was recognised in Geoffrey Ward’s programme notes as, “the crowning glory of Byrd’s achievement as a composer of spiritual works”. The choir’s faithful and sensitive performance set a high standard which was to be maintained throughout the concert.

The text used by Orlando Gibbons in the madrigal What Is our Life? might have been written by Sir Walter Raleigh and went to the heart of the evening’s theme.  Christopher Tye‘s Peccavimus cum Patribus was, for me, the probable highlightof the evening, although very demanding in its requirement for the higher voices toexercise their upper ranges, in dramatic contrast to the two sections for the lower voices.

Drama was very evident too in Robert Ramsey‘s How are the Mighty Fallen, notleast in its musical interpretation of the titlestatement. The final choral piece was Robert Carver‘sremarkable O bone Jesu in which nine of the nineteen vocal parts are scored for tenors – a challenge for the choir reminiscent of Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in Alium. The concentration required was evident in the faces of some choir members but they succeeded in providing a memorable final item in the programme.

One of the notable features of John Gibbons’programming is the inclusion of well-choseninstrumentalists to provide varietyand contrast.  On this occasion, the choirwas joined by the Romaldi Trio, comprisingRob Garcia (mandolin/mandola/guitar), IanSegui (mandolin/mandola) and Steve Smith(guitar), who proved ideally suited to theacoustics of the chapel at All Saints. Thosesitting close to them were particularlytransfixed by their skill and musicianship inthe items they played between the choral pieces.

A further element of melancholy was added to the evening by the thought that the Chapel’s fine acoustics may be lost to the Chamber Choir and other musical groups by the impending sale of All Saints by the Archdiocese of Westminster.  Members of the audience were asked to pause on their way out to sign a petition asking for that decision to be reversed.

Nicholas Crickmay

 

Herts Advertiser   (24 March 2011)

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Post-Christmas Blues

15 January 2011        St Saviour’s Church

Choir jazz things up for church

TOP quality jazz events are a rarity in St Albans, but if the size of the audience at St Saviour’s Churchon Saturday is anything to go by, there is clearly an audience for them.  This concert was a rare combination of a choir and fine jazz musicians – in this case the St Albans Chamber Choir, the Will Todd Trio and local saxophonist David Wigram together with jazz singer Bethany Halliday. The central reason was a performance of Will Todd’s sensational Mass in Blue, a work commissioned by the Hertfordshire Chorus and which received its premier in St Albans Abbey in 2003.

Todd’s love for both jazz and choral music is clear throughout the work which skilfully blends the two genres to stunning effect. Under musical director John Gibbons, the choir worked superbly with the musicians and Bethany Halliday to produce a remarkable musical event.  More accustomed to singing traditional, often early music, the Choir members demonstrated tremendous versatility as well as great performing skill as they handled the subtleties of the work, which, in spite of its style, never detracted from the meaning of the Latin text.

The trio and David Wigram had earlier joined the choir in performances of John Rutter’s Birthday Madrigals and Karl Jenkins’s witty nonsense piece A Parliament ofOwls.Rutter’s work, which alternately usesjazz and more traditional choral styles,also clearly demonstrated the Choir’sversatility as they handled the changesfrom the swinging version of It was aLover and his Lass to the gentlesounds of Draw on, Sweet Night.

Between the madrigals and A Parliament of Owls the trio did their own thing with exciting toe-tapping arrangements of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Let There Be Joy in My Heart.

As one of the city’s most respected musicians commented at the end of the performance, “This could well be the highlight of the year”, and if the size and reaction of the audience are anything to go by, other groups have been set an extremely high standard for the future.

John Manning

Herts Advertiser (21 January 2011)

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Remembrance

20 November 2010       St Peter’s Church

Late but great for choir’s concert

WHO would turn out on a cold, dank November evening to sit in a church listening to music written by deceased composers in honour of the dead?   Well, last Saturday, the nave of St Peter’s Church was packed with people doing just that. In fact, they had come to hear St Albans Chamber Choir give their account of masterpieces by J.S. Bach, John Ireland and Herbert Howells. Supported by music director John Gibbons, and local organist Alex Flood, it proved to be an evening of old favourites for the ecclesiastical cognoscenti, and a splendid introduction to some of the finest British sacred music of the twentieth century for the rest of the audience.

The concert opened with Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus, my joy). This is a substantial work, mademore demanding by being unaccompanied. The choirdisplayed fine ensemble singing, displaying great clarityand verve, especially in the stunning opening, and in theglorious finale where the final chord, suddenly switchedinto the major key, uplifts and inspires.

Ireland and Howells, who wrote many secular worksincluding chamber and piano works, are best known fortheir anthems and are well loved by church choirs.Ireland’s anthem Greater Love Hath No Man is sung around Easter and Remembrance Sunday and its quiet intensity with contrasting middle section makes it a great piece to sing.  The Howells’ Requiem is equally passionate, with long flowing lines and thick harmonies that create a richness of sound and suits the choir well. The various solo parts were taken on by members of the choir to great effect, most notably Tom Anthony in the finale, I heard a voice from Heaven, where he maintained a clear and serene bass line through the other parts.

Alex Flood allowed the choir some respite during his performances of Kleine harmonische Labyrinthe, a dramatic piece attributed to J.S.Bach, and in Howells’ Saraband in moda elegiaca. Both pieces allowed Alex to demonstrate the full range of St Peter’s great new organ and he gave fine performances of each.

The concert concluded with Howells’ anthem, Take him Earth, for Cherishing. This was written for thememorial service of John F. Kennedy and is consideredby many to be Howells’ finest work. This mostimpassioned piece provided a fine ending to a concert ofmusic for remembering.

Ros McGuirk

Herts Advertiser (25 November 2010)

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Magna Carta celebration

12 June 2010   St Albans Cathedral

Magna Carta concert made of the rights stuff

THERE can be little doubt that Saturday’s Magna Carta Celebration Concert at St Albans Abbey was one of the most important St Albans Symphony Orchestra had ever given. Not only was it playing in front of most of Hertfordshire’s civic leaders, but it was also giving the last major concert under current conductor Dr James Ross. The result was a triumph for the orchestra, which has made tremendous progress in the nine years Dr Ross has been in charge.

The orchestra was joined for the event by the Royal Academy of Music Brass Ensemble, St Albans Chamber Choir and Watford Philharmonic Society as well as mezzo soprano Jeanette Ager and soprano Sara Jonsson.

Specially designed to fit with the city’s Magna Carta Celebrations, the first half, conducted by Chamber Choir musical director John Gibbons, opened with a tremendous performance of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. This striking work filled the Abbey with sound of an outstanding quality which immediately set a mark for the rest of the evening.

To say that the second work, American composer Howard Hanson’s Song of Human Rights, is rarely heard is something of an understatement. It was originally written in 1963 to celebrate the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and John Gibbons believes it may not have been performed since then. However Saturday’s performance by the Orchestra and the Chamber Choir fitted exactly into the theme of the evening and the work proved to be pleasant and tuneful and well worth the extraordinary efforts Mr Gibbons had made to acquire a copy of the score.

But the major work of the evening was the performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, a piece considered by many to be the composer’s most important and most compelling. Any doubts I had over the orchestra’s ability to perform this huge and dramatic work were dispelled from the opening dark, almost doom-laden bars. Although not perfect, for no live performance ever is, this was an outstanding event in the life of the Orchestra and a fitting tribute to the hard work Dr Ross and the members have put in over the past nine years.  Yes, there were some minor flaws in the orchestra’s performance, but in the overall effect they were insignificant. The interpretation by Dr Ross was fine and well balanced and throughout the epic work the musicians totally gripped the attention of the audience. Jeanette Ager’s rich and commanding voice added hugely to the effect of the moving fourth movement and together with Sara Jonsson and the combined Watford and St Albans choirs, the powerful fifth movement brought the soloists and the orchestra’s extraordinary performance to a triumphant end.

The one disappointment of the evening was the small size of the audience, presumably reduced by the fact that England was playing its first game in the World Cup. But those regulars who opted not to attend missed one of the finest evenings of music ever staged by the St Albans Symphony Orchestra and one which surely demonstrated the tremendous skills of amateur music makers in the district.

JOHN MANNING

Herts Advertiser (17 June 2010)


SEEN AND HEARD UK CONCERT REVIEW

For review of our February 2010 concert, please click here “Gloria review

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A Parliament of Owls

4 July 2009   St Peter’s Church

Exciting times for St Albans Chamber Choir

CONDUCTOR John Gibbons deserves a huge vote of thanks for arranging one of the most exciting concerts to be staged in St Albans for some time.  The final concert in the St Albans Chamber Choir’s 50th anniversary season was packed with musical treats not just from the choir, but also from the guest artists who were taking part at St Peter’s Church in St Albans on Saturday.

Topping the bill was internationally-renowned composer Karl Jenkins and his wife Carol Barratt who accompanied the choir in a performance of Jenkins’ own work A Parliament of Owls, but also adding to the riches of the evening were world-class marimba player Daniella Ganeva and St Albans saxophone player David Wigram.

Daniella joined the choir in their first work of the evening, Oratio, by the little-known Latvian composer Rihards Dubra. This is probably one of the most demanding and challenging pieces ever sung by the Chamber Choir but the result was outstanding, particularly in the way the voices blended with the marimba.

Hard on its heels came the first of two solo spots by David Wigram in which he played three of the four movements from Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla‘s fast moving Histoire du Tango, accompanied by John Gibbons at the piano.  David’s performance of these delightful jazzy and rhythmic pieces just added to the excitement of the evening.

Edward Elgar‘s delightful song There Is Sweet Music acted as a wonderful foil to the fast-moving Argentinean rhythm and once more demonstrated the choir’s ability to handle difficult works.

Sweet Suffolk Owl by the 17th century composer Thomas Vautor acted as a fine introduction to Karl Jenkins A Parliament of Owls.  Described as a “celebration of collective nouns”, the work is at once witty and entertaining but also demanding not only for the choir but also for the accompanists – the piano duettists, saxophone and percussion.  The huge applause of the audience at the end of the of the work should have been enough to prove to all those taking part that the performance was hugely entertaining.

In complete contrast, the second half began with Les Chansons des Roses, five outstandingly beautiful songs by the contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen.  Daniella Ganeva’s solo spot, a performance of Visio Remissionis, a piece specially written for her by Rihards Dubra, proved to be yet another high point of the evening. Daniella showed tremendous mastery of her instrument, demonstrating a vast range of tonal effects in her completely riveting performance.  The madrigals, All Creatures Now Are Merry-Minded by John Bennet and Orlando GibbonsThe Silver Swan calmed down the proceedings before David Wigram’s performance of the third of Piazzolla’s pieces and the final work of the evening, Bob Chilcott‘s amusing Weather Report.

This was without doubt a great evening of outstanding – and often rare – music sung by a fine choir and performed by outstanding musicians. John Gibbons and all those associated with the evening deserve heartfelt thanks from all those fortunate enough to be present at the concert.

Herts Advertiser  (9 July 2009)

John Manning

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Martyrs and heroes

24 January 2009    St Albans Cathedral

Making of a martyr

ALTHOUGH premières of new musical compositions are reasonably common events in St Albans, few can have been more eagerly awaited than Saturday’s performance of Tarik O’Regan‘s Martyr. The work was commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of St Albans Chamber Choir and along with an outstanding line-up of soloists, the choir was joined for the performance in St Albans Abbey by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Recognised on both sides of the Atlantic as one of Britain’s leading young composers, O’Regan used an extract from an anonymous eighth century manuscript, an ecclesiastical sonnet by Wordsworth and a translation of an eleventh century poem as the texts for his work on the martyrdom of St Alban. The result was an expressive, atmospheric work which was both thrilling and uplifting.  It made full use of the choir’s finer qualities as well as providing excellent orchestral moments and some outstanding sections for the soloists, soprano Ida Falk Winland, alto Jeanette Ager, tenor Matthew Minter and bass James Oldfield.  At the centre of the work was a fine unaccompanied section for the choir, which can be used as a stand-alone concert piece should it become popular with other choirs.

The choir had opened the concert with a brief and rather troubling unaccompanied work, Immortal Bach by Knut Nystedt.  Based on Bach’s Komm, süsser Tod, the individual lines are ‘stretched’ by different singers to produce a disconcerting sound pattern before all the voices once more come together.  It was followed by Tchaikovsky’s stunning Legend, one of his Carols for Choir, which was sung in Russian, and a performance by the orchestra of Arensky‘s all too-rarely-heard Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky.

The second half was chiefly given over to Joseph Haydn’s glorious Nelson Mass where there can be little doubt that the star performer was Soprano Ida Falk Witland. Although all four soloists together with the orchestra, choir and organist Alex Woodrow gave fine performances, Ida was outstanding.  The whole evening, conducted by John Gibbons, was a truly memorable event and completely worthy of a 50th anniversary celebration.

John Manning

Herts Advertiser 29 January 2009

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Summer Blues

5 July 2008

‘THERE was something particularly refreshing about the choice of music for St Albans Chamber Choir‘s concert on Saturday.  Musical director John Gibbons skilfully entwined songs by Percy Grainger, Jonathan Dove and John Rutter around George Shearing‘s delightful Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare.  And just to add an extra piquancy to the event, the Rutter work was his Birthday Madrigals which include settings of two of the Shakespeare pieces in Shearing’s work.’

‘The evening started with Percy Grainger’s slightly macabre piece The Three Ravens with choir member John Webb singing an excellent tenor solo.’  ‘Of the seven Shearing pieces, several have a strong jazz influence backed by excellent piano and double bass accompaniment provided by John Byron and Andrew Wood. Probably the best known of these are Hey, Ho, The Wind and the Rain and It Was a Lover and his Lass but several of the other pieces such as Who is Silvia? are more contemplative and serene. All were performed exquisitely by the choir.

The other two Percy Grainger pieces in the programme were his setting of the folk song Brigg Fair with tenor Ralph Penny as soloist and Early One Morning with tenor Geoff Ward and soprano Rosamund Adlard providing the solo parts.  Both are charming works which were given first-class performances.’

‘In the hands of Jonathan Dove, the old nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin takes on a completely new form and the Chamber Choir extracted every nuance from the rich sound patterns his music provides.  The work is animated and powerful and is relatively brief but at the same time it is, for me, thoroughly entertaining and Saturday’s performance was extremely good fun.’

‘Now the choir is set to begin its 50th anniversary season which will include a concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in St Albans Abbey early next year.’

Herts Advertiser

Extracts from review by John Manning

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Stabat Mater

15 March 2008   St Saviour’s Church

Choir in the right direction

‘For only his third concert since he was appointed conductor of St Albans Chamber Choir, John Gibbons showed his ability to understand his singers with a programme of Easter music.  His choice for the concert at St Saviour’s Church, St Albans, on Saturday was of pieces from the 16th to the 18th century which were all ideally suited to the choir.’

‘The first was the very brief but delightful O Vos Omnes by Italian Carlo Gesualdo. For the piece, John Gibbons took the choir to the eastern end of the church, relatively far away from the audience, a move which added to the effect of the piece.’

Orlandus Lassus’ rich setting of Aurora Lucis Rutilat, a work attributed to the fourth-century Saint Ambrose, was another fine performance by the choir which was split into main choir and sub choir of sopranos for the unaccompanied work.’

‘But the group had left their finest performance to the last. They sang Handel’s Dixit Dominus with huge enthusiasm and obvious delight. The result was that the incredibly-showy work was packed with life and character.’

‘St Albans Chamber Choir appears to have taken on a new lease of life….’

Herts Advertiser

Extracts from review by John Manning

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Entente Cordiale

19 January 2008

‘ALTHOUGH it is only three months since John Gibbons took over as conductor of the St Albans Chamber Choir he is already making a huge impression……’

‘All Saints Chapel has a rare acoustic quality with an extremely long reverberation time which, although unforgiving, allowed the choir to develop a tremendous sound quality which added greatly to the impact of the Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor.  ‘There was a strong sonorous quality throughout the work and particularly fine solo performances by individual members.’

‘John Gibbons and the choir developed the full glory of the work to give an exciting and fresh performance. But the interspersed songs, all in French, were equally well performed and their variety was both entertaining and refreshing. Particularly outstanding was the extremely difficult Claude Debussy song Yver, vous n’estes qu’un vilain.’

‘The way the choir handled this and the rest of the concert brings hope that the Chamber Choir, which has always had a high reputation, is now set to move on to a more impressive future.’

Herts Advertiser

Extracts from review by John Manning

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Love & Remembrance

10 November 2007

‘…the choir gave a tremendous performance of Herbert Howells’ moving work Take Him, Earth for Cherishing.  The piece, written for the memorial service of John F Kennedy in Washington Cathedral, is rightly considered one of the great choral works of the 20th century and the choir’s performance more than did it justice.  Similarly there were good performances of Robert Ramsey’s marvellous anthem How Are The Mighty Fallen and Schütz’s Selig Sind Die Toten.’

‘The main work of the evening was the rarely-heard Requiem by the little-known English composer George Lloyd.  Complete shortly before his death in 1998, it is a substantial and tuneful work with some great high points, all of which were well sung by the choir.’

‘I have a strong feeling that the new partnership is set to be a great success’

Herts Advertiser

Extracts from review by John Manning

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