A Ceremony of Carols - Britten
Gloria - Poulenc
Requiem - Rutter
Review by Lawrence Tomlinson:
On Sunday evening, with a large audience gathered in St Andrew’s Church, the concert given by the Penrith Singers began as a group of sopranos processed down the aisle singing, “Hodie Christus natus est”. So began the choir’s performance of “A Ceremony of Carols”, composed in 1942 by Benjamin Britten, appropriate, both for the Christmas season, and this year being the centenary of his birth. Written for treble voices and harp, this evening’s performance was given by the ladies of the choir with AnnaKate Pearson accompanying on the harp. Many of the carols are taken from old English sources and set in contrasting styles. So we began with a rhythmical setting of “Wolcum Yole”, then “There is no rose of such virtu” was softly harmonised with repeated bass octaves on harp, building to a climax with “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”. The choir brought the carol beautifully to a long unison pianissimo ending.
Soprano soloist, Rachel Little, sang her first solo describing the weeping Christ Child being lulled to sleep with her singing. The variety of carols continued with the ballad-like, “I sing of a maiden”, and then the choir entering fully into the bright, fast moving “This little Babe”. Repeated figuration in the harp accompaniment was a feature of several of the carols and no more so than in the harp “Interlude”. The audience was spellbound as AnnaKate Pearson played the lovely and gentle piece with such sensitivity. Soprano, Stephanie Chadwick joined Rachel Little, blending beautifully in the “Spring Carol”, the work then ending with the dramatic “Deo Gratias” followed quietly as it began with “Hodie Christus natus est”.
The men joined the ladies in the “Gloria” by Poulenc. Written in 1959 it is an idiosyncratic work, written tongue in cheek one may say! This performance was accompanied by Ian Hare on the organ. It begins in fine style with a strident theme on the organ and then the men, first basses, then tenors, taking their opportunity to lead in “Gloria in excelsis Deo”. The choir certainly achieved the light bouncing rhythm of “Laudamus te”, and then the fast and loud “Domine fili unigenite”. In much of the piece, Poulenc sets the soprano voice supported by the choir. So in the “Domine Jesu”, Rachel Little sang with immaculate phrasing of line, as she did throughout the evening. Clearly, Poulenc is wanting to celebrate such beauty and purity of voice as so often he allows the soprano to soar above the four part chorus as, for example, she sings “Qui tollis peccata mundi“. A feature of the piece is the extreme in dynamic range, notable in the closing soft ending of “Qui sedes ad dexteram patris”.
John Rutter well known through his popular settings of choral anthems, wrote the “Requiem” in 1985. For this, Ian Hare was joined by AnnaKate Pearson, Suzanne de Lozey, flute; Susan Austen, oboe; Alex McQuiston, cello; Anthea Bremner, glockenspiel and Anthony Payne, timpani.The instruments are used sparingly and often in an obbligato role. The sopranos excelled in the broad, lilting tune in the opening “Requiem aeternam”, and then the cello accompanied the reflective choral singing in “Out of the deep”. Rachel Little sang the “Pie Jesu”, another flowing melody beautifully sung. In the Sanctus the glockenspiel came into its own, with its bell-like accompaniment. The mood changed for the “Agnus Dei” with its steady funereal drum beat, the flute leading to the closing words sung solemnly “I am the resurrection and the life”. “The Lord is my shepherd” was a highlight, with its plaintive sounding oboe obbligato, and lightly scored for chorus. Finally the “Lux aeterna” closed the performance with the choir once more singing softly, the sound dying away.
With such a varied programme involving differing instrumental combinations accompanying the choir throughout the evening, Colin Marston, the choir’s conductor, proved his skill at bringing to us such a celebration of 20th century choral music, always so well supported by Ian Hare, the organist.