Review: Haunting choral majesty at St Mark's in Leamington
Peter Ormerod reviews Lullaby My Jesus, presented by the Choir of Clare College Cambridge at St Mark's church, Leamington
It's easy for the quiet mystery of Advent to get drowned out by the noise of the oncoming Christmas juggernaut. It was therefore a treat indeed to hear this strange season marked in radiant fashion by these singers, whose luminous voices filled this cavernous church with remarkable and sometimes unsettling sounds.
Led crisply by director Graham Ross, the singers began with a suitably crepuscular O come, O come, Emmanuel, whose haunting glories were magnified by the 30-strong choir's procession around the aisles. The first half followed a pleasing pattern: ninth-century plainsong chants, based on ancient descriptions of Jesus, paired with related works composed in the past 400 years. The most memorable of these latter compositions was written by Roderick Williams, the world-renowned baritone who lives in Kineton: for his piece, the choir used the space with great skill, the altos and sopranos wandering with a deliberate aimlessness around the back of the church's chancel, their piercing voices resounding and rebounding around its vaulted ceiling, the sound all the while anchored by steady work from the basses and tenors. It was as mesmerising to watch as it was to listen to, and a great tribute to the skills of Williams, more than holding his own in a programme featuring music by Mendelsosohn, Rutter and Praetorius. The first half grew a little more sentimental as it progressed, providing sweet relief: Advent, after all, awaits not just the birth of Christ, but the return of Jesus at the end of the world.
The second half took us to more familiar territory, with works celebrating Christmas. The likes of Ding dong! Merrily on High, the Sussex Carol and the Coventry Carol proved heartening indeed, as did Nigel Short's arrangement of Away in a Manger. But it was Jean Mouton's Nesciens Mater that was arguably the most impressive, a technical tour de force, the singers facing each other from the side aisles, voices drifting to and fro across the audience. The programme ended with The Twelve Days of Christmas, performed with good-natured choreography, with a playful encore of Jingle Bells.
The acoustics of this Victorian church are idea for choral music and, writing as someone who has attended hundreds of services there, it can seldom have sounded better. There was perhaps a disparity at times between sound and vision - not all the choir's members took as much care with their posture as others, and there was an occasional sense that some treated this as primarily a technical exercise in musical excellence, rather than as the telling of a story in which to become emotionally involved. But it was impossible to leave unimpressed by the skill of the choir and the care with which the programme was compiled. For those fortunate enough to be in attendance, there will be few greater treats this Christmas.
* The concert took place on Saturday December 17. Visit www.leamingtonmusic.org for details of other concerts organised by Leamington Music.