Visiting Durham Cathedral as part of a month long festival of the music of Sir John Stainer, the choir of Magdalen College Oxford put together an imaginative programme of English choral music, featuring music not just by Stainer but also composers who influenced him, his contemporaries and his successors. Stainer himself was “Informator Choristarum”, or musical director, at Magdalen College, and several of the composers chosen for tonight’s concert also held that post, or had links to Magdalen. The programme began with the Tudors, worked forward through Purcell and Blow to Stainer, then onward to Parry and Harris, and then retracing its steps back through time to finish with John Sheppard’s beautiful motet Libera Nos. Sheppard’s music seems to be undergoing something of a rediscovery at the moment, and this rich, silky piece is typical of his work.

© Chris Christodoulou
© Chris Christodoulou

The Magdalen College trebles were very impressive; perfectly clear and pure and filling the space in Durham Cathedral effortlessly. They were also visibly very tired after a busy few days of rehearsals and services in Durham, but that didn’t stop them putting in a beautiful and extremely musical performance: even though some of them looked as if they were about to fall asleep on their feet, it didn’t show in their singing. The soloists’ names weren’t given in the programme, which is a pity, as they were easily the best trebles I’ve ever heard. The lower parts were strong, without ever being harsh and there was some particularly lovely legato singing from the altos, although overall I felt that the diction could have been clearer.

Durham Cathedral’s splendid organ was also put to good use, both in accompanying the choir, and in a couple of solo pieces. The introduction to Elgar’s “The Spirit of the Lord”, representing the Holy Spirit was full of atmosphere and orchestral colour, whilst the power employed for Parry’s Fantasia and Fugue in G left the floor vibrating. On the whole the Victorian music was not as engaging as the earlier works, although Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria was notable for its big solid sound, and the lively passage about the eyes of the blind being opened in Harris’s “Strengthen ye the weak hands” was sung with great spirit.

Purcell’s anthem O God, thou art my God had a surprise at end in the form of a Hallelujah that has subsequently found fame as the hymn tune “Westminster Abbey” (usually sung to the words “Christ is made the sure foundation”) and you could feel the audience collectively resisting the temptation to join in.

The two programmed pieces by Stainer himself, “Lead, kindly light” and “I saw the Lord” were both typical of the composer’s output, with lavish harmonies and big tunes. Inevitably, the choir performed his best known anthem “God so loved the World” as an encore and therein lay the biggest surprise of the evening. It’s a piece that is part of the core repertoire of probably every church choir in the country, and I would wager that everyone in tonight’s audience has heard it and sung it numerous times. In the hands of Madgalen choir it was transformed miraculously from overindulgent Victorian sentiment into something light and delicate, full of space; it was a revelation.

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