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London Concord Singers /  Malcolm Cottle: St Michael’s Church,  Chester Square,  London, 10.7.2008 (BBr)

Randall Thompson:
Alleluia (1940)
Eric Whitacre: Lux Arumque (1974)
William Byrd: Neati mundo corde (1605)
Robert Parsons: Credo quod redemptor meus vivit
John Sheppard: Verbum caro
Johannes Brahms: Warum is das Licht gegeben?, op.74/1 (1856)
Charles Ives: Psalm 67 (1898/1899)
Eric Whitacre: hope, faith, life, love… (1999)
Alberto Ginastera: Lamentations of Jeremiah, op.14 (1946)
C H H Parry: My soul, there is a country (1918)
Robert Hugill:  Deus in adjutorium (2004)
Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina: Precatus est Moyses
Giovanni Pierluigi di Palestrina: Exsultate Deo
Eric Whitacre: When David Heard (1999)

Arriving late, due to an earlier concert running late and the London traffic being almost gridlocked, I entered St Michael’s Church to the glorious sound of unaccompanied voices raised in full harmony in Whitacre’s Lux Arumque. And what a wonderful sound it was – the thirty voices filling the  not too reverberant acoustic, making me wonder why we seldom hear unaccompanied choral music (except from the BBC Singers) when there is such a wealth of repertoire just waiting for the performers to come along and give it a platform.

Malcolm Cottle had planned an interesting concert, mixing the old with the new and giving us some surprises. After the first of three Whitacre pieces, the English group was well done, three serious pieces to be sure, but they were handled with a lightness of touch which varied the tone and made an interesting set. Brahms’s Warum is das Licht gegeben? suffered from a couple of ragged entries from the sopranos but the performance of Ives’s Psalm 67 was quite stunning. I loved it. Not, perhaps, to everyone’s taste, this austere setting came as a shock after the richness of Brahms, but it made the audience sit up and really listen to something quite different from what had gone before. The first half ended with more Whitacre - hope, faith, life, love… - which set eight words in rich harmonies, easy on the ear and pleasing to sing.

The programme for the second half was even more varied, and all the better for that. Ginastera’s Lamentations of Jeremiah requires a virtuoso choir to bring off the wild declamations of the outer movements which surround a quiet meditation. The London Concord Singers rose to the challenge and gave a magnificent performance, seemingly oblivious to the many difficulties the composer puts before them. To follow this with Parry’s beautiful setting of Henry Vaughn was a masterstroke; the gentle flowing lines, oh so very English, the tender counterpoint, providing a foil for the weight of what had gone before.

Robert Hugill’s Deus in adjutorium , one in a projected series of 70 motets  - 35 of which have been completed so far - of settings of all the Introit texts for all the Sundays and major church festivals,  used both the declamatory and the polyphonic. A solo tenor, well sung by Margaret Jackson-Roberts, one of two female tenors in the group, acting as a kind of narrator, leading the choir into a prayer to “Let my enemies be confounded…” with music that seems to be of the utmost simplicity, but is in fact well thought out and carefully designed to illuminate the words. How wonderful to hear a contemporary work where the composer actually cares about the text he is setting and writes music that is so grateful to sing. Hugill is himself a singer, and a member of this choir, so he knows how to write for the group's voices and this showed in every bar. This was my first hearing of Hugill’s music and it made me want to hear more.

Two lovely Palestrina motets followed, but it’s always difficult to follow a piece as striking as Hugill’s, so my memory of them is somewhat shallow. I rejoined the audience fully for the final Whitacre piece, When David Heard. Here, the composer sets one sentence from II Samuel 18:33 in which he uses silence to heighten the poignancy of the words. And did he use silence? Oh,  yes he did. So much so that it started to annoy me in the “cutesy” way that “clever” music does. The outer section with its cluster effects (which were fine once,  but should not have been reprised as this weakened what had gone before) was fine but the damned silences!!! I believe that in the score the composer instructs the singers to relish and enjoy the silences. What a shame that he didn’t realize what a clichéd piece he was creating. I can fully understand the programming of three pieces by Whitacre – his “modern music without tears” style is very attractive, easy on the ear, and a delight to sing but for me, a little goes a long way. When David Heard made a beautiful sound with which to end the concert but it sat uneasily after the stronger pieces which preceded it.

Malcolm Cottle is a fine choral trainer and the London Concord Singers did him proud in this show. There was intelligence and a fine understanding of the music from all involved, the acoustic enhanced the beauty of the singing – and there was some very beautiful singing – and, perhaps best of all, the choir had a truly integrated sound – no one voice stood out, as can happen if there’s one stronger voice in a section – so the sound really bloomed.

Whatever my reservations about some of the music performed, this was a fine show and it makes me wish we heard more of this kind of concert. Thank you London Concord Singers for a wonderful evening.

Bob Briggs

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