Mass for Four Voices - Byrd
Song for Athene - Tavener
Five Spirituals (from A Child of Our Time) - Tippett
Messa di Gloria - Puccini
Review by Lawrence Tomlinson:
To begin at the beginning. The Penrith Singers was founded in 1979 by David Wells, a small chamber choir, then of some 30 singers. Colin Marston took over the choir in 1984, and now 31 years later, at this Summer Concert, held in St. Andrew’s Church, he would take his final bow. He has nurtured the choir over those years, covering a large repertoire of works and composers. At times the membership has approached 90. Clearly, it has been a friendly, happy and loyal group, who have enjoyed singing under their conductor.
And so to this final concert, full of variety, demonstrated in the contrast between the first and last pieces, both settings of the mass, but nearly three centuries apart in their composition. From the opening Kyrie Eleison of the Mass for Four Voices by William Byrd, each part in the choir was clearly heard in the contrapuntal structure, which continued throughout the unaccompanied work. Notable were the long flowing phrases given to the sopranos in the Gloria, which they sang with ease, and with the altos in the opening of the final Agnus Dei.
Rachel Little (soprano) has performed with the choir many times, so it was fitting that she should take part. Singing two songs by Roger Quilter, the tune of Ye banks and braes would be known by all, and the second, the short and sparkling Love’s Philosophy. Between these came Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, a more reflective piece showing off Rachel’s purity of voice. Ian Tate was her accompanist and would later accompany the choir. Such an accomplished pianist for which the choir was so grateful. Due to unforeseen circumstances he had barely a week’s notice to prepare, yet his accompanying was impeccable.
John Tavener, who died just last year, composed Song for Athene on the tragic death of a close friend. Familiar since it was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral, the lower men’s voices hold a pedal note throughout, the higher men’s voices singing a repeated “alleluia” between short verses sung by the rest of the choir, and building to a climax before falling away, back to the fading pedal note. Well sung, powerful and effective.
Michael Tippett’s Five Negro Spirituals are taken from his A Child of Our Time, written in response to Nazi persecution of the Jews. In this unaccompanied arrangement, while the tunes are familiar, complex rhythms are often involved in the part singing. For these the choir was joined by Rachel Little, Adam Magee (tenor), Paul im Thurn (bass) and, from the choir, Margaret Nelson (alto). The soprano voice soared over the choir in Steal Away, the tenor taking the verses in Nobody Knows, the bass similarly in Go down, Moses, and all voices joining in the closing Deep River.
The final piece in the evening’s programme was Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, an early work, so called as the Gloria takes the major role, and in this performance it came last. Accompanied by Ian Tate at the piano, one sensed that the choir were not quite as comfortable with the setting of the Mass in this operatic style. Et incarnatus est was sensitively sung by Adam Magee and choir. In the more sombre Crucifixus Paul im Thurn sang with his dark bass, the full choir then taking the Credo on to Et Resurrexit.
The Agnus Dei involved tenor and bass in solo and duet with choir singing what seemed a rather trivial tune for such weighty material, Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. But then the opening theme of the Gloria drove the music on as it recurred. The centrepiece was Gratais agimus tibi, sung by tenor soloist with the final section moving apace in fugue.
So congratulations to soloists, accompanist and choir, and on this evening in particular, to conductor Colin Marston. After words of appreciation from Rachel Carruthers, Chair of the Choir Committee, a worthy standing ovation followed a final farewell, with the choir singing Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.