Stephen Cleobury has been Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge for 30 years. He first came to Australia in 1987 when, as he pointed out last night, not a single singer on the platform had been born. During his tenure he has commissioned with a vengeance, expanded the choral repertoire and changed the sound from the full, but to our ears now, slightly mannered sound of the sixties choir to the leaner, meaner, classy sound that those of us at Angel Place last night were able to enjoy in an ideal acoustic.
The attractive program was chronologically arranged to take us from the English Reformation through to the present day with a couple of side trips to Italy and a homage to Australia thrown in for good measure. We began with Byrd’s Sing Joyfully, and that’s exactly what the choir did. The celebratory anthem played perfectly to the strengths of these 32 young singers – clarity of texture, brightness of tone and delight in music making. It’s a lovely youthful sound. The tenors and basses are fresh-voiced – no-one hoots or woofs – but notably there’s no sign of strain or attempt to push the sound from among the older voices, thus achieving an ideal balance with the trebles. The male altos were particularly enjoyable, their light tones coming through with appealing subtlety.
Palestrina’s Dum Complerentur showed off their ‘English’ choral sound, warm and rounded, not edgy like some of their continental counterparts. Thomas Tallis’s rich and resonant Suscipe quaeso, Domine from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae gave the older singers a chance to shine on their own – the top countertenors sounded beautiful here – with some glorious phrasing in this ‘nowhere to hide’ music.
A tasteful Bach Duetto from Douglas Tang on the chamber organ led into the Baroque section. Purcell’s early, rather episodic Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei was trumped by his melodically inspired setting of I Was Glad (written for the coronation of James II) with its thrilling overlapping entries of “as it was in the beginning”. Monteverdi’s six-part Adoramus Te might have benefitted from a touch more grandeur and textual drama, but not so his sprightly Cantate Domino, which sported a graceful tenor line and was generally spot on.
The second half jumped forward to the Victorians, and the sometimes complex poetry chosen by Stanford and especially Parry can sometimes prove a stretch for younger singer’s brains. This is where training and skilled conducting is all, and happily King’s College are blessed with both. If some of the notes in Stanford’s Song of Wisdom were a little treacherous, Parry’s seven-part Lord, Let Me Know Mine End drew possibly the finest singing of the evening. A remarkably committed performance, the complex “take thy plague away from me” section was dazzling while Parry’s most subtle harmonic adventures were negotiated with effortless skill. And how tight were the exposed consonants here! At The Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, too, was gloriously handled, drawing confident and imaginative singing in what can be fiendish music.
Three Australian carols followed, commissioned by Cleobury over the years for the famous King’s Christmas service. Peter Sculthorpe’s 1988 The Birthday of Thy King finds him at his most Herbert Howells-like and suited the choir down to the ground. Brett Dean’s Now Comes the Dawn is a bit neither fish nor fowl. Neither celebratory, but lacking a compensatory sense of unfolding mystery, it rather eluded the choir. Carl Vine’s Ring Out Wild Bells, on the other hand, manages to incorporate both with its pungent harmonies and a profound sense of logical development. It received an exemplary performance.
Benjamin Britten’s sublime Hymn to St Cecilia is surely one of the greatest choral works of all time. A perfect jewel, combining as it does great music with great poetry, it’s always a different work when sung by men and boys rather than a mixed choir. Gone is the slightly portentous air, replaced by a refreshing less-knowing innocence. The choir was outstanding here. The substantial treble solo was handled with a terrific sense of line and the radiant solos on “O weep child weep” and “wear your tribulation like a rose” showed a maturity of musical expression rare in such young singers.
On tour with Musica Viva, some audiences will get to hear the Fauré Requiem. Listening to the shiny new CD that plopped onto my desk yesterday (KGS0005), that should be a grand experience. But for those lucky enough to get the mixed program, variety was very much the choral spice of life. And how satisfying to see City Recital Hall bursting at the seams for once!