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Music: Clare College Choir (St Mary’s, Warwick)

15 July 2022

Vaughan Williams was the centrepiece here, says Roderic Dunnett

INCREDIBLY, 50 years have passed since the mixed-voice choir of Clare College, Cambridge, was founded by Peter Dennison. It has gone from strength to strength, not least under John Rutter and Timothy Brown.

And now, the undying excellence of this virtuosic ensemble stems from its present Director, Graham Ross, who himself studied music at Clare, and who brought his choir this month to St Mary’s, Warwick, promoted by the flourishing Leamington Music, as part of a new choral festival, fancifully dubbed “Warwick — A Singing Town”.

Clare’s numerous CDs speak volumes. That Ross has programmed so many première recordings is one of the feathers in its cap. This 50th anniversary has been prefaced by something strikingly original: “Iceland: The Eternal Music”, a true rarity, including sacred music by ten Icelandic composers — names such Thorvaldsdóttir and Ásgeirsson, and a glowing Requiem by Sigurður Sævarsson — on which the choir’s expressive evocation of the “cold, crystal clear atmosphere”, “hypnotic soundworld”, and “instinctive contemplation” has been universally acclaimed.

October 2022 brings the 150th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birth. It formed the focus of Clare’s almost entirely enchanting Warwick performance. The choir has already done its bit, releasing a disc that includes another new treasure: RVW’s music (1905) to accompany Ben Jonson’s 1620s pastoral masque Pan’s Anniversary (The Shepherd’s Holiday), featuring Timothy and Samuel West as speakers. All their discs are available on the Clare choir’s website.

Aptly, Vaughan Williams’s unaccompanied Mass in G provided the heart of this enticing programme. One of the choir’s many virtues is the way in which all voices transit effortlessly from soft and lulling to louder full sections, and vice versa. Renaissance music, especially Byrd, seeps into the music, and the clarity and delicacy of the singing gave rich vent to this sometimes almost subliminal aspect.

A rather overpowering top line cast temporary doubt on the Kyries’ balance, although soon great beauty ensued. It also preceded: no such problem surfaced with the imitative counterpoint of Robert Wylkynson’s fabulously thickly scored Jesus autem transiens (from the Eton Choirbook), its soaring and daring anticipatory perhaps of Sheppard.

Ten works infiltrated the Mass (plus three of better-known RVW). A shrill solo in Judith Weir’s exultant e e cummings setting “i thank You God for most this amazing day” almost grated, whereas the chief tenor soloist was unremittingly pure joy to hear. Graham Ross’s choir caught to perfection the intimacy of Howard Skempton’s simple, sensitive, part-iambic treatment of Yeats’s “Cloths of Heaven” (“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”), preceding RVW’s Gloria, in which the unexpectedly gentle, pianissimo opening, its fragility captured by all voices with touching sensitivity (and a beautiful hint of, I think, alto solo), soon evolved into wonderful resonant paragraphs.

How exciting to encounter the Magnificat by W. Denis Browne, who perished at Gallipoli. In a similar assertive style to his contemporaries (Dyson or Sumsion, even Noble), it gave another opportunity for Clare’s two organ scholars to shine, with inspiring registrations and unfailing precision. A coincidence: the senior holds the Sir William McKie organ scholarship. McKie was Dennison’s mentor when growing up in Sydney. Let’s hope Peter Dennison is especially and deservedly honoured in Clare’s forthcoming celebrations.


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