As their first performance since the very successful Christmas concert in Michaelmas term, Durham University Chamber Choir were tonight at Durham Cathedral’s stunning chapter house, performing music by Byrd, Lobo and Brahms, led by Conductor George Cook. The venue was full to capacity, with a good mix of students, family, members of the cathedral chapter and congregation, and of the wider community.
The concert opened with William Byrd’s glorious Mass Propers for Easter Day. An example of Byrd’s liturgical work for the English Catholic Church taken from the climax of the Church year, this piece did not disappoint, and the choir’s rendering of it was lively and impressive. A slight lack of clear articulation in some of the more athletic choral entries did not diminish the wonderful contrast between these and the more intimate choral sections. The choir demonstrated great skill singing quietly but with no loss of energy and intensity, and credit should go to director George Cook for directing these nuances in the music so adeptly. A highlight was the penultimate verse, featuring a dramatic, almost theatrical rendering of the text: ‘The earth trembled, and was still’. The tenor and bass sections, with their dark tones, reflected this word-painting brilliantly. Credit should go to soprano Eleanor Hunt and tenor Llewelyn Cross for particularly expressive solo work.
We then moved back through Holy Week to a piece traditionally heard during holy week, as the audience was treated to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, set to music by Alonso Lobo (1555-1617). It was particularly uplifting to hear the intimacy of the choral refrains on the Hebrew letters ‘Teth’ and ‘Iod’ that separate the verses. The alto section was particularly together in these more tender entries, and blended very well, where in other sections some voices tended to overpower. In general, however, the various sections acted as a unit and balanced very well whilst giving vibrancy and warmth to the choral timbre. It is demonstrative of the vocal quality of every member of this ensemble that no section seemed to have a dominant person, but everyone was equally confident on their line, making the whole group exude confidence.
After an interval, the audience were treated to four motets by Johannes Brahms, in the first two of which the choir split into two. The second work, Drei Motetten, was particularly impressive. The 3rds in the soprano parts were particularly expressive, as was the wider dialogue between the first choir singing the verse and the second choir’s interjections with the
refrain, ’Herr, Herr Gott’. This motet also featured a chorale section, Ach, arme Welt, which
incorporated some elements of polyphony, particularly with the dialogue between the sopranos
altos and tenors and basses.
The other highlight in this half was the penultimate motet, Es ist das Heil uns Kommen her from
Zwei Motetten, in which the lower parts in particular are very rich under the soprano cantus
firmus. The fugal section is equally rich, with soaring tenor and soprano lines and a very bright,
jubilant sound from the bass section. Overall, these works proved a great vocal showcase, and
were well suited to a concert in this historic space. The performance also encompassed both
pre- and post-reformation music.
Looking ahead from tonight’s brilliant performance, the choir will be returning to the Cathedral,
where it will be joining with other ensembles for the Music Durham Summer Concert on 2nd
June. They will also be returning with their famous Music on the River event, and performing
their own Summer concert.