The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge can trace its origins back to the founding of the college by Henry VI in 1441. That’s a lot of history. Indeed, this veritable musical icon is an example of living, breathing historical authentic performance practice, upholding centuries of tradition while continuing to commission, or to have commissioned for them, new works to enrich the already incredibly rich and diverse English choral repertoire. And here they were, back in Perth again, for the first concert of their latest Australian tour for Musica Viva. It’s just a shame Sir Stephen Cleobury, their director of music since 1982, could not, owing to ill health, join them for what was to be his final international tour before retiring. Luckily the Choir’s new director, the estimable Daniel Hyde, was able to step in. The Perth concert was also somewhat of a homecoming for Hyde, who between 1998 and 1999 was assistant organist at St George’s Cathedral.
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Photo © Scott Slawinski
This program, one of two the Choir is presenting in Australia, began and ended with two very different coronation anthems from different periods in musical history. Where Purcell’s version of I Was Glad is extravagantly Italianate in its word-painting and use of counterpoint, Parry’s – which needs no introduction – is all pomp and majesty. Despite some beautifully rendered passages, the Choir were less than settled in the Purcell. No such qualms in the Parry, which blazed forth with a ringing confidence that was classic King’s.
In between, there was also much to be glad about. Following the Purcell bracket, the highlight of which was the verse anthem Thy Word is a Lantern, featuring some exceptional solo singing from an ATB trio, senior organ scholar Henry Websdale treated the near-capacity audience to a thrilling account of JS Bach’s chorale prelude, Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist, BWV671.
It made for a choice palate cleanser before the world premiere of Australian composer Ross Edwards’ specially-commissioned setting of Psalm 100, Singing the Love. The novelty and exuberance of the writing – the sonorous chanting, the dancing intervals leaping antiphonally from voice to voice, the impish rhythms – sounded so strange and yet so utterly at home, recalling the experiments of the Notre Dame school as much as the Scottish composer James Macmillan’s contemporary treatment of medieval hockets.
The final work before interval, Gerald Finzi’s superb Crashaw setting Lo the Full, Final Sacrifice, provided a well-judged contrast, soloists and tutti alike relishing Finzi’s supreme melodic and coloristic gifts such that their effects were carried over into the second half, forming a nearly seamless connection with Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s beautiful verse anthem, The Wilderness. Here, the Choir’s unparalleled soloistic, ensemble and tutti skills were on show as perhaps nowhere else, Hyde’s masterly direction ensuring an almost magical cohesion in terms of blend and ensemble.
Another organ interlude followed, this time courtesy of Mendelssohn and junior organ scholar Donal McCann, whose blazing, preternaturally authoritative rendition of the first movement of the composer’s Organ Sonata No 3 brought the house down. It made a perfect curtain-raiser for Stanford’s equally dramatic For Lo, I Raise Up, which however boasted a serene pendant: Lennox Berkley’s radiant The Lord is My Shepherd, sung with the utmost delicacy and feeling.
Finally, the Parry, which should have ended a well-nigh perfect showcase of choral singing by one of the world’s foremost choirs. But for some reason novelty songs remain popular as encores among the choral fraternity. And so it was here, with the King’s boys sending the audience into the good night with Keith Roberts’ arrangement of the Beach Boys’ I Get Around. I don’t get it.
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, tours nationally for Musica Viva Australia until August 6