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Review: Cambridge Chorale at St John’s Church in Stansted for music@stansted

It’s possible that some of those attending the music@stansted concert given by Cambridge Chorale in St John’s Church, Stansted, on Saturday (March 23) might have wondered whether the proceedings were going to prove a little on the dry side, writes Richard Allaway.

The first half of the programme, particularly, consisted entirely of 16th-century madrigals, not a form that many today would claim any familiarity with.

As music director Robert Brooks began to talk about the difference between the Italian and the English madrigal traditions, they might well have wondered whether this was going to be more of an illustrated lecture than a choral concert.

They needn’t have worried, though, as Brooks’ commentary on each of the numbers quickly turned out to be a welcome mixture of helpful explanation and wry observation that raised many a smile. The somewhat racy nature of the Italian numbers, and the tendency of the English lyrics to lapse into fa-la-la, were cases in point. Meanwhile, the Chorale, a handpicked ensemble of highly-skilled amateur singers, delivered the music with plenty of emotional heft as well as technical accuracy.

More and more female composers are emerging, belatedly, into the limelight in recent years and the evening began with three pieces by one such, Vittoria Aleotti, who certainly doesn’t deserve the obscurity her name has fallen into over the centuries.

It has to be said, though, that it is the composer we heard next who eclipses all others in this field: Claudio Monteverdi. Nobody, having heard his highly-charged setting of “I should like to die” (Press me to your white breast until I faint! Oh mouth! Oh tongue! Oh kisses!) could ever accuse the madrigal of academic dryness.

Cambridge Chorale performed in Stansted on Saturday, March 23
Cambridge Chorale performed in Stansted on Saturday, March 23

Next we were given a selection of works from some of the most famous English composers of the time, including Orlando Gibbons’ much-loved Silver Swan with its timeless observation: “More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise”. Contemporary relevance indeed.

The second half of the concert consisted of 20th- and 21st-century music, and Robert Brooks was informative about the evolution of the madrigal, through the Victorian and Edwardian part-song and on to the choral music being written today. Works by contemporary composers like Caroline Shaw and Eleanor Daley were all the more enjoyable for being heard in their historical context.

Thought had clearly gone into the presentation of this programme of varied musical styles. For Robert Pearsall’s Lay a Garland, for example, the singers abandoned their traditional groupings (sopranos and altos to the left, tenors and basses to the right) and mingled almost at random together, producing a strikingly different sound as a result.

Other pieces divided the Chorale in two; the ladies by themselves evoked the elves and fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as set by Amy Beach, while the men brought depth and richness to Vaughan Williams’ luscious arrangement of Loch Lomond.

Cambridge Chorale fully deserve their reputation as a highly-skilled ensemble who can turn their hand to anything with confidence and aplomb. Their assured and expressive performance was enough in itself to guarantee a thoroughly rewarding evening, but, as a bonus, Robert Brooks’ commentary, always informative but never arcane, meant we went away not only enriched by the music, but a little more knowledgeable as well.

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