It was a radiant way to open a concert. The Giovanni Consort stood behind the audience at Christ Church Claremont so that the splendour of Gabriel Jackson’s To Morning flooded over our backs like a musical sunrise. For the remainder of the concert the sixteen-piece choir stood in various configurations at the front to perform their program of contemporary English choral music.
Works by twentieth century English heroes were included: St Godric’s Hymn was laden with Benjamin Britten’s distinctive cluster harmonies and settings of Shakespeare by Ralph Vaughan-Williams were richly layered with wordpainting. Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Waves Come Rolling required the choir to speak, snarl and whisper, their words cascading like waves and creating a game of chase in a theatrical setting of Spencer’s The Faerie Queen.
These sat alongside works by contemporary composers continuing in the tradition of great English choral writing. It was a worthy introduction to some lesser-well known names, although it would have been helpful to have notes in the program or an introduction from the stage to give some background information.
The choir and conductor Robert Braham stood in a circle for He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven and A Dream by Howard Skempton, giving compact unity to Skempton’s vividly dramatic writing. Roxanna Panufnik’s settings of the irreverent poetry of Wendy Cope was bright and tongue-in-cheek in Some Rules, with contrasting pointillism and homophony in The Homeless Hammer. Giles Swayne’s Magnificat was an intriguing blend of syncopated rhythms and ancient cadences while Sir John Tavener’s plainchant-inspired Song for Athene was a reminder of why he is such a beloved English composer with its dense harmonies and hope-filled climax.
The heart of the program was Paul Mealor’s Stabat Mater. The choir had been exemplary until now with their judicious use of dynamics, excellent balance and ability to convey a story. But in the Stabat Mater they lifted again, singing with even greater emotional breadth and warmth. Clean entries and a fabulous bass section made the first movement darkly dramatic. Brianna Louwen’s emotionally compelling soprano solo in the second movement soared unencumbered above the lush chorale accompaniment. The English do have a talent for choral writing and Mealor’s Stabat Mater continues that great tradition, the swelling phrase in the final movement showcasing the purity and splendour of the voice and heard to great effect in the acoustics of Christ Church Chapel.
Frankly it was a pleasure to listen to a group of professionals who so obviously enjoy their singing. Braham’s direction was precise and authoritative and the carefully balanced programs a delight for both the connoisseur and the enthusiast.