As the autumn evenings begin to darken and lengthen, growing chillier and damper, we could all do with a little burst of beauty; and this short programme of three Bach motets, and Hubert Parry's six Songs of Farewell, both promised and delivered an hour or so of exultant, jubilant singing from the Cambridge Chorale, in their first public concert with exciting new conductor Owain Park. With only the sanctuary lit, Little St Mary's Church felt austere in the darkness, its whitewashed Gothic mullions soaring into shadow over its long wooden pews, wooden angels gleaming here and there with gilt, and incense faintly lacing the air. Best of all, the church's springy, warm acoustic generously repaid the choir's efforts.
The bright freneticism of the first Bach motet came out beautifully, the choir sounding vibrantly human (rather than ethereal) with plenty of energy in their soft, warm tone, though enthusiasm occasionally got the better of timing. Komm, Jesu, komm was a more polished piece of singing, conveying a good sense of building tension and desperation as the choir beseech Jesus to relieve their spiritual weariness. Singet dem Herrn was delivered with positive zing, its intricate shape first reminding me of a Christmas carol before unfurling into a supremely elegant harmonic resolution.
Parry's six Songs of Farewell mix comfortable harmonic ideas with some more dissonant and difficult ambitions, as Parry grappled with his grief and anger at the human cost of First World War. My soul, there is a country sounded lovely, with yearning, blossoming harmonies; Cambridge Chorale seemed to be on more familiar territories with this and with I know my soul, a song of moving simplicity. Never weather-beaten sail began with waves of fabulous harmonies breaking over us, Parry's beguiling development of harmonies moving well. However, as phrases lengthened, the choir could start to run out of steam, or get a little smudgy. There is an old belief started hesitantly, but made up for it with a transcendent coda. At the round earth's imagined corners saw Park take much greater rhythmic control, achieving a much sharper performance, although the choir sounded slightly less musical when flustered, and the testing nature of the song (Parry's most sophisticated) proved a real challenge to all except the basses. Lord, let me know mine end was a welcome return to their comfort zone, with a genuinely pretty melody.
In general, Cambridge Chorale are more than confident when it comes to smooth, soaring sounds, lilting cadences and warm harmonies. They have much to offer musically: clean and penetrating sopranos, clear basses, and plenty of colour and energy from the altos and tenors. They seem less fluent in articulating other emotions beyond simple joy, anger or grief; Park still needs to accentuate discipline and crispness across the board to achieve real emotional sophistication.
Owain Park's thoughtful programme notes offer an accessible insight into his musical choices, with enough technical detail to let you track the key points of each piece without getting bewildered. He is on the cusp of taking them to a new level of singing; they are edging towards it, and this challenging programme showed us the choir's current weaknesses as well as their strengths. A few unruly sopranos can get carried away rhythmically, enjoying their scores rather than looking at their conductor, and when Park pushes hard for exacting technical detail, confidence can falter across the choir. However, a first concert this promising bodes well for the future partnership between this choir and this conductor – if only they will take his lead.
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