Concert Review: Duruflé Requiem by Candlelight, Saturday 6th February 2016

Chamber 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, Herts Advertiser, February 2016

Concert Review: Bach B Minor Mass, 28 November 2015

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

Concert Review: Mozart Mass in C Minor, 11 April 2015

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

Concert Review: Wynde, Whirlwinds and Flight, 28 February 2015

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