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'A Taste of the New World'

posted Jul 18, 2010, 3:59 AM by Alex Hawley   [ updated Jul 18, 2010, 4:05 AM ]
Robert Webb's review of LCCC's concert of 3rd July 2010.
It was a fitting celebration of the Eve of Independence Day that Martyn Rawles and his Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir chose to treat concert-goers to a programme of music connected with the United States of America. While regular visitors to the Cathedral are accustomed to hearing the Chamber Choir in liturgical performances throughout the year, this talented group of musicians frequently reaches a wider audience in radio broadcasts, in performances away from the cathedral and in their concert series.

An imaginative but carefully selected and well-balanced programme promised a highly satisfying evening. Finzi’s Magnificat in the first half, and Jesse Crawford’s arrangement for organ of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in the second, provided the perfect foil to lesser-known choral and vocal works by Dvorak, Copland, Barber and Kodaly.

The evening’s music got off to a stirring start with the suspense-filled organ prelude which introduces Finzi’s Magnificat, leading to the choir’s first entry which was nothing short of exhilarating. Despite this piece being an American commission, it would be hard to imagine a more English sound with which to open the concert than Finzi’s distinctive harmonic and contrapuntal writing. This was handled with great accuracy and sensitivity by Rawles and the choir, who were evidently on home turf. Although regular worshippers at the Cathedral have previously enjoyed the Chamber Choir’s interpretation of this extended setting in the context of Choral Evensong, it was a distinct privilege to hear it again in the framework for which it was originally conceived: a non-liturgical concert performance (Finzi omitted to set the Gloria Patri). The sublime ‘Amen’ with which the movement ends was particularly moving.

Next we were most fortunate to hear the professional Mezzo-soprano Ailsa Cochrane in a selection of three of Dvorak’s Biblical Songs. This stunning soloist, already well-known to Lichfield audiences, performed exquisitely as we have come to expect, bravely choosing to sing the original 16th century Czech translation of the Biblical text rather than Dvorak’s later English version. Cochrane employed her warm, captivating and highly expressive voice to convey an impressive range of emotions, from the desolation of lament to exuberant joy. She was accompanied sensitively on the piano by Cathedral Organist and Director of Music Philip Scriven, who, having just performed the Finzi organ part, demonstrated the rare versatility of one who is a consummate performer on two very different instruments. This selection of three songs whetted the appetite of at least one audience member, and I wonder when we might have the opportunity to hear the full set of ten.

The first half concluded with Copland’s extraordinary setting for chorus and mezzo-soprano of the opening verses of the book of Genesis, In the Beginning. This complex and challenging work was tackled admirably by Martyn Rawles and the Choir, joined again by Ailsa Cochrane. The singers were more than equal to the technical demands posed by frequent modulations and detailed contrapuntal writing, maintaining accurate pitch and intonation throughout. In this representation of the Creation narrative, the gradual crescendo of excitement towards the climactic creation of man and his living soul was well-paced and animated with professional dynamism by both choir and soloist.

Following the interval (in which suitably themed refreshments were served: cookies, chocolate brownies and cola!) the rest of the performance continued in the same vein of dedicated enthusiasm and professionalism. The two Barber songs Twelfth Night and To be Sung on the Water were beautifully sung, realising the powerful and haunting emotions of the score and giving the choir another chance to demonstrate their impressively wide dynamic range. By contrast, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue provided light relief, the effective arrangement by Crawford being interpreted with brilliant virtuosity by Philip Scriven. The instrument was truly brought alive, a wide range of registrations being exploited so as to suggest a variety of orchestral instruments and textures.

The unusual but inspired choice for a final showpiece for the virtuosity of choir, conductor and organist was Kodaly’s Laudes organi, a 1966 commission from the American Guild of Organists. In this setting of a medieval Latin text which praises the beauty, power and range of the organ, the choral sections were sung with a conviction and accuracy which was matched by Scriven’s masterful execution of the extremely demanding organ interludes – a striking realisation of the work’s theme. In the final, triumphant exclamation ‘Fiat, Amen’, the choir and organ filled the building with sound in a most thrilling conclusion.

Clearly the future of Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir lies in capable hands. Under the directorship of Martyn Rawles they continue to tackle ever more ambitious and demanding works with characteristic polish and flair. Let us hope that the following of this fine choir continues to grow!

Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir; Martyn Rawles – Director; Ailsa Cochrane – Mezzo-soprano; Philip Scriven - Organ

reviewer: Robert Webb