If ever there were a case for a Cambridge college having a mixed-gender choir, Clare College’s singers made it bewitchingly in their choral miscellany of music for Passiontide, at the close of St John’s Holy Week Festival on Saturday evening. Although there is a clarity to treble voices, the richness brought to the sound by female sopranos and altos (albeit that there are a couple of countertenors in the alto mix) adds lustre and warmth, and prevents the music (particularly the polyphony) from becoming too clinical.
As with all college choirs of young people, there were a few rough edges to the sound, and, particularly in the male voices, a touch of ‘anything you can sing, I can sing louder’, such that the blend of timbre wasn’t always quite there (a tendency in Finzi’s Lo, the full final sacrifice and Howells’ Like as the hart, for example, for the tenors and basses to produce a more edgy, operatic sound, and for the sopranos and altos to be more covered), but these were only moments, and generally, the blend and balance were good.
The polyphonic items fared the best, and the Director, Graham Ross, clearly understands and transmits the requirements of the genre, such that the ebb and flow of the dynamic worked well. The opening Viadana Sicut ovis (sung from the back of the building) shimmered out of nowhere, and the subsequent performances of Victoria’s O vos omnes and Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum were models of control; the hushed low-voices repetition of ‘Sion deserta facta est’ in Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui was special indeed. For the English polyphony, the choir opted for English pronunciation of the Latin, making for some enjoyable consonantal rhythm – the repeated fricative ‘j’ pinging around the singers in Tallis’s In jejunio et fletu, being a case in point. Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, delivered ‘in the round’ was a thing of beauty, and provided a useful reference point for the inventive re-imagining of the work by Roderick Williams, in which three choral groups passed overlapping material around the circle leading to some imaginative effects that brought to mind a piano with its dampers off.
James MacMillan’s Miserere proves beyond doubt that he is Britain’s best living composer of sacred music. Using sparingly the ubiquitous trope of cluster chords to deliver wow-factor, MacMillan also employs counterpoint, snatches of plainchant and occasional references to the Allegri to give the piece direction and structure. The choir gave an account full of panache, containing moments of hushed blend, a splendid tenor melisma, wall-of-sound homophony and a throbbing low-bass-underscored pianissimo close.
Jonathan Harvey’s works are a challenge to any performers, and the choir tackled his I love the Lord and Nunc dimittis with élan, mastering the bi-tonal nature of the former piece to produce some well-tuned note clusters, and bringing off the hocketing, stuttering notes and portamenti in the latter with confidence and verve.
It was, perhaps, the more mainstream choral favourites that were less impressive. Notwithstanding the earlier comments about gender mix, Wesley’s Wash me throughly almost demands a hooty nasal treble for the solo, and while the choir gave it an excellent performance, it lacked the period charm that this texture brings. As well as the aforementioned tendency for male-voice over-blowing, the Howells and the Finzi were also not helped by the St John’s organ. Eleanor Carter and Ashley Crow played well, but the works need the more spread sounds of a 20th-century instrument for some of their effects, and the timbres of the classical-voiced instrument were a tad too absolute.