Music review: the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, at Cadogan Hall

by
21 December 2018

Garry Humphreys hears the choir of St George’s away from their chapel

BBC

Cadogan Hall

Cadogan Hall

ALTHOUGH originally the New Christian Science Church, Cadogan Hall — now a concert venue near London’s Sloane Square — undoubtedly has a very different acoustic from St George’s Chapel, Windsor, whose choir presented on 3 December an evening of music for Advent before a large audience perhaps (or perhaps not) attracted by publicity that made much of the fact that this was the choir that sang at two royal weddings at Windsor this year.

The choir has, of course, been singing services in the Chapel since 1348, except for 11 years of the Commonwealth; so the music we heard is in its blood, with the benefit of many years of tradition in the manner of its execution. Much of this music would have been new when first sung by the choir in previous centuries.

In fact, Cadogan Hall is a large wooden space without pillars and obstructions to both sight and sound, and has sufficient resonance to accommodate these pieces, but with a clarity that may not be achievable in a more conventional stone church or cathedral building.

The programme was most ingeniously put together, beginning with the plainsong Laudes Regiae (“Christus vincit”), a lone cantor in the gallery above the stage and the choir behind the scenes; then moving broadly chronologically, via William Byrd, Michael Wise, Thomas Weelkes, Orlando Gibbons, Otto Goldschmidt, John Stainer, and Lennox Berkeley, and non-British composers such as Brahms, Bach, Praetorius, Verdi, and Arvo Pärt (the currently fashionable Bogoróditse Djévo — “Rejoice, O virgin Mary, full of grace”, which ended the programme).

The range of styles was, therefore, great, but did not faze this choir, which adapted its sound accordingly. There were many outstanding moments: a wonderful performance of Byrd’s Ne irascaris; Gibbons’s This is the record of John, with an immaculate countertenor solo; a change of style for Brahms’s Es ist das Heil uns kommen her; and a setting of the same words for two tenors by Johann Hermann Schein, delivered with panache and in authentic style from the gallery by the silver-toned soloists.

The most surprising inclusion was “Ave Maria”, from Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces, written as an exercise and not intended for performance, around a “scala enigmatica”, a challenging enigmatic scale that Verdi found in an Italian music magazine. The tuning makes it a difficult sing, but the St George’s Choir’s performance made it sound very easy, a tribute to the musicianship of all involved.

Members of the choir were listed in the programme, but no soloists were identified — quite properly, I suppose, as would be the case in a liturgical performance; but it would have been good to put names to individual voices so expertly managed. The whole evening was stage-managed beautifully, the choir moving reverently as it would in the Chapel. Applause between each piece was neither encouraged nor discouraged, and so it was remarkable that the audience remained completely silent, enraptured by this sequence of events, until the end of each half, when the impact of the music, and the consequent appreciation, was so much more effective.

Mention must be made of the programme notes, by James M. Potter, which were outstanding, explaining the spiritual and religious context of what we heard as well as the historical and musical and adding much to the meaning of the whole experience.

The Choir’s director of music, James Vivian, was in charge, Luke Bond providing chamber organ accompaniment where needed and playing solos, by Byrd and Bach, related to the programme. This was a most accomplished performance by all, and a most enjoyable and rewarding evening in which that wonderful feeling of expectation characteristic of Advent was satisfyingly realised.

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