Saturday, 24 March 2018

King's/Parry - Lenten Choral Music, 21 March 2018


Cadogan Hall

Palestrina: Stabat Mater
Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah (Part 1)
Poulenc: Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence
Lassus: Stabat Mater
Byrd: Ne irascaris, Domine; Civitas sancti tui
Brahms: Warum ist das Licht gegeben, op.74 no.2; Schaffe in mir, Gott, op.29 no.2

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Ben Parry (conductor)


Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.) Not that I did, of course: I tended to go to my own chapel services more than others’; I also tended to prefer the services down the road at St John’s, less packed with tourists and thus seemingly less of a ‘concert’. I also preferred, in many ways, the more ‘Continental’ sound of St John’s to the typically ‘English’, whiter sound of King’s. Nevertheless, it was always quite an experience, first to set foot in that masterpiece of late Perpendicular Gothic – pay no heed to its cultured despisers, the same sort who will tell you that St Paul’s is a monstrous hybrid – gowned (and thus in slightly better seating than the non-Cambridge congregants), and to hear that celebrated choir, which, through radio and other recordings, I had known for so long before my time in the city that was essentially my home for fifteen years.


Ben Parry, an old boy from the choir and Assistant Director of Music at King’s, substituted for Stephen Cleobury, who was recovering from a bicycle accident. Parry certainly knew the choir and how to play to its strengths; it is difficult to imagine anyone having been disappointed, even in the almost diametrically opposed (to its echoing Chapel home) acoustic of Cadogan Hall. If some tempo choices, perhaps especially in the closing Brahms motets, seemed chosen more to help the boys than on ‘purely’ musical grounds, there is no great harm in that. The business of a collegiate (or other) choral foundation, after all, is far more than providing concert material; indeed, that is not really its business at all. Perhaps those works by Brahms, Warum ist das Licht gegeben? and Schaffe in mir, Gott, the latter a setting of part of Luther’s translation of the Miserere (Psalm 51), will have flowed more readily, especially in the relationship between different sections, and indeed have benefited from surer intonation, but there was much to enjoy, especially in their respective closing sections.


Two settings of the Stabat Mater, by Palestrina and Lassus, opened the concert’s two halves. Both were nicely shaded, without jarring (to my ears, without any) anachronism. The performance of the former imparted, when called upon, a real sense of ‘dec and can’ (decani and cantoris) antiphony in a different setting. It perhaps sounded closer to Monteverdi than often one hears, less ‘white’ than I had expected. Whatever the Council of Trent’s suspicion of the poem, I was struck by the essential simplicity, however artful, of the music and by the guiding role of words. Lassus’s setting came across as darker, a little more Northern perhaps. (He was, after all, Kapellmeister in Munich.) Within the context of an undoubtedly ‘Anglican’ performance, full of tone yet not too full, the sound seemed – or maybe it was just my ears adjusting – to become a little more Italianate as time progressed.


Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence offer a challenge, not least intonational, to any choir, and are more often heard with older (female) voices. In these forthright performances, there was – rightly, I think – no great attempt made to ape other performing traditions, but there was nevertheless sometimes a harshness, even perhaps, in the closing ‘Tristis est anima mea’, an anger, we do not necessarily associate with the choir. The shading of ‘Vinea mea electa’ was intelligent, fuller than Anglican reputation would have you believe. If intonation proved far from perfect, especially in the opening ‘Timor et tremor’, nor should one exaggerate; one always knew where the music and indeed the text were heading.


The music of Tallis and Byrd is home territory for King’s – albeit here without the trebles. Naturally, in their absence, countertenors came more strongly to the fore. Parry wisely made no attempt to do too much in terms of word-painting in the Tallis; the words speak for themselves, and did so here especially on the Lenten cries for ‘Ierusalem, Ierusalem’ to return to her God. The two Byrd motets offered, for me, the highlight of the concert. Without a hint of blandness or routine, there was simply – or not so simply – that ineffable sense of ‘rightness’, of ease with the music, the composer’s recusancy notwithstanding. Music and words spoke freely, in greatly satisfying performances. As we heard in both, ‘Sion deserta facta est, Jerusalem desolata est.’ And yet, there was comfort to be had, if not in the wilderness and desolation of Jerusalems heavenly and earthly, then in their artistic representation – which is doubtless as it should be.


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