Out with the old year and in with the new

15 January 2016

Roderic Dunnett looks both ways at music in late 2015 and treats in store for this year

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AS THE main musical venues in London launch their orchestral programmes, it is not just the Barbican and the South Bank that will be packaging music and performers in significant and appetising series. Others also merit our attention and admiration.

The city’s newest high-quality venue, King’s Place (near King’s Cross station), will extend its daring forays into the Classical and Baroque: “Baroque Unwrapped”, running the whole season, has now reached its eighth year.

The Cadogan Hall, near Sloane Square, is home to a series of choral concerts programmed with acumen by Peter Phillips, founder of the Tallis Scholars. Built in 1901 by the German firm Bechstein to show off the qualities of its outstanding pianos, the Wigmore Hall, north of Oxford Street, continues to set the pace for song recitals. But of similar importance are the Rosenblatt recitals, founded in 2000; they have now moved to the Wigmore Hall (and the Royal Opera), but for years established their pedigree at St John’s, Smith Square.

The London Festival of Baroque Music 2016 (13-19 May, in Westminster Abbey as well as St Peter’s, Eaton Square, and St John’s, Smith Square), part of a series of festivals formerly sponsored by Lufthansa, will feature treasures of the 18th century and earlier, and, in the section “Future Baroque”, two Italianate-sounding newcomer ensembles: Ceruleo, formed by students from the Guildhall, and Ignis, whose members hail from the historical department of the Royal College of Music.

St John’s has gained fame for its choral feast leading up to Christmas and heralding New Year. We have been spoilt by such riches as Stephen Layton’s choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and his professional group Polyphony; by the choir of Clare College under Tim Brown’s successor, Graham Ross, embracing works from Sheppard to William Mathias; Peter Phillips’s Tallis Scholars, bringing together Tallis and Arvo Pärt; and — perhaps most distinctive — the Baroque collective Solomon’s Knot, founded in 2008 by Jonathan Sells, and still notably young, which set Bach against his great predecessors, Johann Schelle (1648-1701) and Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722).

Robert King and his The King’s Consort did sterling work recording both on separate discs for Hyperion (now mid-price on Helios, CDGH 55373 and 55394); but, otherwise, who, outside Leipzig, hears Schelle and Kuhnau and their thrilling cantatas nowadays? This was easily the plum concert of the series, in the matter of repertoire.

But I plumped for the recital by the choir of Merton College, Oxford, under Benjamin Nicholas, mainly because I have been astounded repeatedly by the choir’s achievements. Phillips had a hand in its founding, and Merton is easily up to the standard of Magdalen and New College, both of which are scaling new heights to this day: it has had an effect on Oxford music comparable to the emergence of Trinity and Clare in Cambridge, but a case can be made for its often having the edge.

Unexpectedly dull though “O Radix Jesse” by Rihards Dubra (born 1964)felt — although the rich impact of this Latvian composer’s output can be experienced on the Choir of Royal Holloway’s superb Hyperion disc CDA 67799 — Merton’s diction, tuning, and timing were near-perfect.

Nicholas demonstrates a marvellous skill at getting a vital and assertive, but not overpowering, sound from his young Merton women. They shone: in Byrd galore, wonderfully delivered; in that other Latvian, Eriks Ešenvalds, the more potent of these Baltic prodigies.

Outdoing all, for my money, was the English Matthew Martin, who is taking up an appointment at Keble College, Oxford. Martin’s “O Oriens” and the subsequent “Nowell sing we”, in common with his other growing choral output, put him up there with James MacMillan, and perhaps Gabriel Jackson and Howard Skempton, among today’s composers of sacred choral music in the UK today. Martin features in Merton’s recorded output, on the Delphian label.

The current organist of the Temple Church, Roger Sayer, has the boys there singing as well as ever. The Temple Winter Festival included another gifted young group, Eo Nomine, whose repertoire and presentation were impressive. Lassus, Guerrero, Peter Philips — these are offerings one might find in any programme of The Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars. But Anerio, the wonderful Johannes Eccard In dulci jubilo, and, thanks to the tenor and baritone of this quintet, the swingeing “Laudate Dominum” of that great Dutch musician Jan Sweelinck, made for an uplifting programme.

The arches and crannies of the Temple Church work mysteries and wonders with the sound. I wasn’t sure that the choir’s exact placing could not have been bettered, but audiences like to see performers as well as hear them, and there has to be a compromise. A clever chiasmus in the arrangement of the programme spoke reams for this group’s sharp intelligence.

I have lauded Jonathan Rathbone’s skills as composer and arranger recently. At the concert at St Mary’s, Walthamstow, the London Forest Choir really pulled all the stops out. How nice it was to see the name of Charles Steggall, once organist of Lincoln’s Inn and, for two decades, secretary of the Bach Society, on a programme. “Remember Now Thy Creator” is one of the most melting English church anthems to emerge from the entire 19th century. My H. C. Colles edition of Grove tells me that there is a mini-opera, Alcestis, and a set of Variations on an Original Theme for orchestra. Perhaps someone should get digging.

Rathbone digs deep for ideas for his arrangements, which are always inventive, never banal. “Sleep, Little Child” is a good example. The choir brought to it sound tuning and excitingly uplifting singing. The young Eleanor Grant, who at 13 embarked on a series of solos, already has oodles of personality, and a musicianly quality that one can only salute. “Winter Wonderland” (not a Rathbone arrangement) was the only dud. The Forest Choir will sing a programme of European sacred music at St Edmund’s, Chingford, on 27 February.

I had to venture out of London to hear The Sixteen: Harry Christophers varied the fare from that of their regular Choral Pilgrimage with a week’s worth of Christmas jollies. I caught up with them in the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, which had the courage to promote the concert itself, and was rewarded with a good audience. This venue is one of the most congenial in the Midlands. Christophers has produced the most beautifully judged and paced performance of the late John Tavener’s “The Lamb” that I have ever heard. As just about every choir sings the piece, that’s saying something. Such insights applied to everything The Sixteeen sang for this enraptured audience.

Listening to their James MacMillan (“O Radiant Dawn” — you can find snippets of MacMillan, and a whole disc of his sacred anthems, on their label CORO), you find just how deeply the Scottish maestro is rooted in the Renaissance, Purcell, and the early Baroque. There was also a Gabriel Jackson setting of wonderful words by Chesterton (“The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap”).

The Nottingham repertoire’s special treat was the five-part “Nesciens mater” by Walter Lambe, a composer from the 15th-century Eton Choirbook. To have Lambe (floruit late 1400s) and, from the successor generation, Richard Pygott, Master of the Children in Wolsey’s private chapel, in one concert gave a fabulous insight into the era that spanned Dunstable and Taverner, Tye, Cornyshe, and Fayrfax. Pygott’s “Quid petis, O fili?” is a treat of alliteration, and has solo passages interleaved, of which easily the most affecting was that of Sally Dunkley: a sound to be cherished, and an example to all.

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