Mass in G - Schubert
Jesu, Meine Freude - Bach
Fantasia on Christmas Carols - Vaughan Williams
Music by Bruckner and Grieg
Review by Lawrence Tomlinson:
A large audience gathered in St Andrew’s Church on 3rd Dec for the Penrith Singers Christmas Concert. A Saturday evening, contrary to the long history of the choir’s Sunday evening performances. The change on account of their conductor, Edward Taylor, having Sunday commitments being Assistant Organist at Carlisle Cathedral.
The audience would, I’m sure, have enjoyed the wide range and variety of items for performance. The choir began with the most challenging piece of the evening: Bach’s ‘Jesu meine Freude’, which centres on a chorale tune in the singing of ‘Jesu, my joy’, and that in the storms of life, even in death, ‘I stand and sing, secure in his peace’. The verses are interspersed with uplifting passages from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Jordan English accompanied on the organ with Sarah Townsend playing ‘cello continuo. A very demanding piece in it’s all but continuous contrapuntal texture, the sense of rhythmic pulse and precision so vital to maintaining the musical flow, the tight relationship of choir and accompanist, all help in the performance of such a complex composition. So, well done Penrith Singers for responding so well to the challenge.
G F Handel, contemporary of J S Bach, must surely feature in such a Christmas concert with pieces from ‘Messiah’. Jonathan Millican, baritone, singing ‘But who may abide?’ explained that though normally sung by an alto soloist, Handel originally composed the piece for bass soloist. Yes, of course! The power in the passage, ‘for he is like a refiner’s fire’, is surely more terrible issuing from a bass voice! ‘Who shall stand when he appeareth?’ Well, who indeed? The lower voice is right again for the singing of, ’The people that walked in darkness’, but they, ‘have seen a great light’. So with his true baritone voice, Jonathan Millican was able to shape and phrase his singing to bring out these contrasts.
He was joined by the young singers, Emily Milburn (soprano), Sarah Townsend (alto and ‘cellist), and Seth Blacklock (bass), in Tavener’s, ‘The Lamb’, a setting of William Blake’s poem. It was sung with such gentleness, the voices blending beautifully in its haunting harmonies. The quickly moving ‘Cantate Domine’ by Pitoni followed in contrast. So far unaccompanied but now joined by Jordan English’s delicate use of the flute stops on the organ in Michael Head’s, ‘The little road to Bethlehem’, in which, Emily Milburn’s bright soprano voice and Jonathan Millican’s baritone were prominent.
How, in music, we can so easily cross the centuries, now to 1861, with Anton Bruckner’s motet, ‘Ave Maria’ (Hail, Virgin Mary) nicely sung by the choir, all parts building up to the three times repeated ‘Jesus’. So to 1898 and Edvard Grieg’s choir arrangement of his song ,’Ave maris stella’ (Hail, bright star of heaven), and then to complete the first half of the concert, Jonathan Millican’s own composition, ‘Gaude’ (Rejoice), with its old English carol sound, choir and soloists entering into it’s dynamic rhythm and energy.
In contrasting mood the choir began the second half of their concert with Schubert’s short Mass in G. Beginning softly with Kyrie Eleison, soprano Emily Milburn continued with Christe Eleison, so there would be parts for the soloists as the work progressed. Notable was the Credo with a continuous bass staccato line on the organ underpinning the choir as the whole built to a fortissimo at ‘et ressurexit’. And how confidently the sopranos began and the other parts followed in the short fugue, ’Hosanna in excelsis’ in the Sanctus, to be repeated in the Benedictus and along with the soloists, closing softly with ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (Grant us Thy peace).
Sarah Townsend returned to her ‘cello for Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia on Christmas Carols’, for baritone and mixed choir, a festive way to move the concert to its finale. While the choir accompanied the soloist with humming voices in the beginning, clearly they took great delight, led by the men, in singing their ‘tidings of joy’. Throughout the concert, how valiant the men were - there are not so many of them. The fantasia closed so softly with ‘happy new year, now and evermore. Amen.’
And the finale? A rousing arrangement of ‘ding dong merrily on high’! With thanks to Penrith Singers, their conductor Edward Taylor, Jonathan Millican, the trio of young soloists, and Jordan English at the organ. As we were able to take so much pleasure from the evening’s concert, we were reminded of the plight of the people of Syria, for which some £300 was given in a retiring collection.