Category Archives: Reviews

Review of Handel’s Messiah concert by Graeme Fife

23rd January 2016
Pamoja Hall – Sevenoaks School

Poster for Handel's Messiah concert given by Cantate Choir in January 2016Handel composed the music for Messiah in twenty four days in August, 1741 – a speed of writing not unusual for him. Its first performance was given in Dublin – for reasons which need not detain us here – and takings for the concert benefited three charities. It was entirely appropriate, then, that Cantate chose this great oratorio for their showpiece concert and made it a benefit performance for Hospice in the Weald. Their target: £10,000.

The choir which sang that first night in Dublin comprised 32 singers, about the same as the forces on which Cantate’s energetic conductor, Robin Walker, can call. The excellent instrumental ensemble Vivace!, with whom the choir collaborates from time to time, is also small in number but large and generous in music.

The wood-lined, open barn-like structure of the Pamoja Hall at Sevenoaks School (the word is Swahili, meaning ‘together’) has a feel of the Snape Maltings and this evening the combined forces of choir and small, elite orchestra filled it with a glorious diapason.

For this gala occasion, Walker secured the services of four soloists of singular distinction: Gillian Keith (soprano), Francesco Ghelardini (counter-tenor), Tom Randle (tenor) and Trevor Eliot Bowes (bass). Each of them sang with wonderful clarity of tone and diction, and a pure musicality which, allied to the verve and sonority of the Cantate choir, and the crisp and rounded playing of Vivace! made for a fine and memorable performance.

From the very opening, Walker conducting from the continuo console, the level of singing and playing was of the highest quality. (Handel had his own organ shipped to Ireland.) It was good to watch, too – never overlook the small drama of two Baroque trumpeters and timpanist gliding in noiselessly through a side door like stealthy autograph hunters during one movement to take up position for their contribution in the next number.

Fugal passages are where most choirs falter, if they lack cohesion, but Cantate have a choral discipline second to none. Moreover, they exhibit a fluent control of dynamic, tone and vocal coherence which comes only from alert intelligence, thorough-going rehearsal ethic and excellent pitching of notes.

There is no evidence that king George II was even present at the first performance of Messiah in London and the earliest mention of the audience standing during the Hallelujah chorus dates to 1756. However, when the audience in Pamoja stood up together this evening, there was a palpable thrill in the hall.

At the end of the interval – glasses of English vineyard fizz and a second visitation of raffle ticket sellers in the foyer – the choir master triggered another thrill in the hall: the evening had raised more than £10,000. Hallelujah.

When Handel reached Fishguard en route to Ireland, he dined at an inn where he ordered ‘dinner for two’. When the landlord asked him where his dining companion was, the composer replied: ‘I am der two.’ Gargantuan appetite, superabundant musical genius and sponsor of another triumph for Cantate.

Graeme Fife

Review of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus

7.30pm, Saturday 9 March 2013 – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks

Review of concert by Graeme Fife

Poster from Cantate Choir's March 2013 concert - Judas Maccabaeus

In its day, Judas Maccabaeus was one of the most popular of all Handel’s Oratorios. Based on earlier events from BC it honoured the Duke of Cumberland’s bloody suppression of and brutal vengeance on the second great Jacobite rebellion. Handel’s score mingles passionate mourning, pious gratitude to the heroic defenders of the nation, ardent apostrophe of liberty, triumphant hymn and fanfare. In this story of a captive people fighting against the oppressor to win freedom, neither chorus nor soloists need to be other than voices raised at both ends of the emotional scale: grief and joy. The music throughout explores the gamut between both extremes and luscious dynamic variation and rhythm supply the means.

The homely drift of instrumentalists weaving through the seats to start the concert, duvet jackets against the cold, instrument cases slung over the shoulder, gave a friendly, turn-up-and-play atmosphere of a local festival. Once launched, however, utterly professional. And thrilling. The hushed piano of the chorus’s first entry, a tricky moment for any company, was sublime.

The chorus did take time to find its best voice and, if I have any quibble, it is with the tempo and shaping of their first contributions. Handel’s sobbing motif, underscoring the grief, the lamentation, needed a better defined dotted measure. This risks sounding mannered, but getting used to the way Handel pins the emotional tone with the faint, repeated stress, absorbing the technique until it comes naturally, is vital. I felt that chorus and orchestra, both, were not yet finding that pulse, although this may well be the fault of a quite unkind acoustic. And, important to say, the slight apprehension that grips before such a big sing as this is. A while to get into stride? For sure, but as the evening progressed their dynamism, articulation and vitality grew.

The soloists were wonderful, the balance between Soprano Sofia Larrson and Alto Rose Setten in their duets slightly skewed in Larsson’s favour, but their interpretation, lovely musicianship, eager projection and subtle shifts of dynamic were entirely delicious. So, too, Bass Edward Ballard, with a rolled ‘r’ worthy of an Andalusian gitano, and Tenor Iaian Milne, the timbre of a high French tenor, both engaging the listeners with a tiger’s eye. All four soloists imparted an excellent shading of the dramatic narrative, the subtle shifts of mood, a growing determination that victory could be pursued and won, and then the celebration of victory. They came to the fore with energy and verve, most importantly, looking into the audience, every face, speaking to each one. Eye contact is vital.

The Cantate know this, too, by and large… They are an exceptionally well-disciplined choir, from getting to their feet in unison with minimum disruption of proceedings to singing the full value of the notes, especially at the conclusion of a phrase (not many outfits do that). Where they wobbled on one occasion it took only two bars or so for them to recover. This takes well-drilled craft, fine articulation and, it must be said, nerve in their conductor, Robin Walker, who did not flinch. Chapeau.

Walker directed from the harpsichord, that in itself as strong an indicator of this group’s burgeoning stature and self-confidence. Given the subaudition that the word amateur carries – “not quite top drawer, don’t you know?” – I would prefer to call them unpaid, for Walker has made this outfit very top drawer. He, himself, has an engaging enthusiasm and composure at the epicentre of both music and musical forces, a nice sensitivity in drawing out the possibilities of Handel’s gloriously varied and complex musical adventure in this oratorio. I remark, especially, the glorious rendering of the piece’s big tune ‘O lovely peace’. Marked Allegro, the mistake is to take it too quickly. Allegro is, in fact, most often a marking suggestive of tone rather than tempo and here it swung with seductive power, evoking the dance that it is, here a joyous galliard. ‘Come ever-smiling Liberty’ did not have quite the same sensuous lilt. Face it, Handel’s music can be unashamedly sexy and whilst the earlier aria is about his Judas paying manly court to the damsel, Freedom, not Vivaldi’s Juditha giving Holofernes the come-on, an equal smouldering allure is there.

There was so much to enjoy in this evening of wonderful music so generously performed. I single out the air and chorus towards the end ‘Sound the alarm’ which really jumped when the brass joined and lifted the choir to a terrific deep-felt passionate intensity.

The collaboration between Cantate and Vivace began a while ago and is maturing with most pleasing effect: top-notch singers and players brought together to make music and make it look and sound as if they are enjoying the whole experience immensely. Consider how much of a task it is to bring together band and vocalists together for a brief interlude on the afternoon of the concert, to put everything together and then perform…this demands enormous self-assurance and, yes, discipline, preparation, to be there, on the button, ready to reproduce what has been pored over in rehearsal. Any reasonable ensemble can trot out the notes. Turning them into music is another thing entirely.

Sevenoaks is lucky, indeed, to be able to pitch up to a concert of this quality. A very costly concert, too. It needs to be said: the Cantate people really do put themselves on the line to fund such an outlay. They need to raise money at their other more intimate concerts to subvent the grander annual splash-out. That takes courage and commitment. In the words of the splendid final flourish of the piece, I say, let us all say: ‘Hallelujah. Amen.’

Underpinning just how the whole evening coalesced into a fine elation of voice and sound all the way through the second half, I noted the flautist, sitting rather sorrowfully inactive during the last blast, lost amid the players sawing and blowing, herself absent from the score but surely longing to join in. Instead? Wall-flowered, excluded from the crowning burst of harmonious fun.

Review of Handel’s Messiah concert

Poster from Cantate Choir's concert in March 2009, Handel's Messiah

Reviewer – Steve Coles

More often than not in my experience, performances of Messiah catch the unwary out. There are just too many hidden obstacles to surmount and standards these days of period performance concerts seem to get higher and higher. Choice of soloists, that is those singers who are Handelian, choice of cuts and probably most important, and choice of speeds, (for there is nothing worse than a dragging Messiah with endless pause to boot between the items), are three such considerations. Then again one must remember that here is a work that needs much more concert day rehearsal time than time or finances permit.

What strikes me, however, is that on every occasion one hears Messiah, something new comes through, whether it is a certain musical phrase one hears differently or a particular tingle factor moment from a soloist or player and one is never disappointed as one is drawn by the music into that special world when the music makes time stand still.

Having put all these obstacles in the way, The Cantate Choir presented Messiah with four young soloists who gave more than creditable performances and a lively band Vivace! formed to work with them and conductor, Robin Walker, and it was The Cantate Choir who were the stars of the show. Their remarkable attention to detail and nuance must surely rate them as one of the top chamber choirs in the South East, if not farther afield. What they lack in professional timbre, (which for me is often itself a negative point), in fact gives them a quality which remains refreshing from beginning to end.

I must confess a personal interest as provider of the keyboard instruments for the gig but would like to mention Robin Walker’s intuitive harpsichord continuo playing, assisted by the German organist, Martin Knizia, who persuaded me to offer Werkmeister III as the unequal temperament which sat well especially in the more distant keys that Handel uses. The strings and oboes ably sustained their formidable unison passage throughout the work which in itself is far far harder than might seem. Rob Farley’s trumpet always enthrals. I know it is a hard work to play but I really miss the B section, arguably the best few bars of the whole work, and then the potential firework opportunities of the recapitulation, but then something also would have to go!

Singing is probably the most subjective art form there is but for my own taste I found Fflur Wyn and Kevin Kyle’s renderings occasionally rather un-Handelian, surprisingly so as they were both finalists at the London Handel Competition, indeed Miss Winn, who has a most striking voice, was a former winner. The alto Owen Willetts certainly had the most formidable power but seemed to lack the transparent quality that the music so often suggests, whilst the bass, Oliver Dunn, passed the finishing line with flying colours; he was certainly able to cope with the range of the two big contrasting arias that Handel demands.

A capacity audience was not disappointed and it was a pleasure to witness a performance, directed as Handel would have done, from the harpsichord by Robin Walker, who with his team and especially his choir, should be proud of taking us all so ably to that place where time, for a moment, stood still and allowed us to reflect on one of the seven wonders of musical history.

Steve Coles
Artistic Director
Tudeley Festival

Review of Summer Love Songs & Jazz

Reviewer – Lionel Steuart Fothringham

This wonderfully varied programme conducted by Robin Walker was presented to a capacity audience in the sympathetic acoustic of St John’s Church.

The Liebeslieder waltzes of Brahms which opened the concert were sung with well-shaped phrases and excellent pronunciation. Overall, the women’s voices came across much better than the men’s in their respective solo passages, and the sound remained well-controlled in the louder items. The piano duet accompaniment played by Clifford Benson and Junko Nakamura was played with great sensitivity.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke for cello and piano were performed by Elizabeth Moore and Clifford Benson in a very expressive way with an excellent sense of rubato. It was a pity, however, that the cello was poorly positioned and did not project well, forcing the pianist to hold back a little too much in the final piece.

Elgar’s There is sweet music is a challenging work for unaccompanied 8-part choir incorporating a complicated key scheme. Unfortunately the performance suffered from tuning problems as a result, but the choir captured the enigmatic quality of the text very well.

The jump to the early seventeenth century for a selection of madrigals worked very well. All were sung with an excellent sense of style and contrast, but there were some problems of balance and pacing in one or two items. Most impressive were the two quiet numbers (Weep you no more, sad fountains by Dowland and The Silver Swan by Gibbons) which were very well controlled.

Prelude, Fugue & Riffs for cello and piano by local composer Laurie Dunkin Wedd was excitingly performed, despite some tuning problems in the difficult first movement. The virtuoso last movement seemed curiously out of character with the rest of the work – it would doubtless sound better played by a rock band!

The concert concluded with four well-known jazz items from 1930s New York. Sadly, In The Mood and I Got Rhythm lacked a certain amount of the sparkle and energy that the music is crying out for, but the gentler Night And Day and Deep Purple were performed with great skill and excellent interplay between the voices.

Review of Howells Requiem

Reviewer – Victor Clements

The concert on Saturday last was stunning! I was so moved by the quality of voices and the musicality of the whole programme: I thought it was absolutely brilliant and so did my companion. We were both so glad we came – so very, very, sorry not so many others did – look what they missed.

The Howells is so beautiful especially as sung by the Cantate – I could go on but I won’t – you will gather I loved it and keep re-living the joy of it.

Review of Magnificat!

Reviewer – Robert Hardcastle

Review of the concert by The Cantate Choir at Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School. – 26th January 2003

Image from programme for Magnificat! concert, part of the Tudely Festival

Three setttings of the Magnificat in one afternoon may sound like two too many, but thanks to some very ingenious programme planning and superbly authentic performances by the Cantate Choir, the London Pro Arte Baroque Orchestra and a well-chosen group of soloists, a packed audience in the Tonbridge School Chapel last Sunday enjoyed a rare feast of joyous and celebratory music-making.

Mounted by Dr Stephen Coles as part of this year’s Tudeley Festival, this unique concert was given in aid of the Tonbridge Cottage Hospital, who are raising money for much-needed ceiling hoists to make patient care easier for the staff and patients alike. The programme consisted of two Magnificats in D major, the first by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and the second composed by his father, Johann Sebastian, some twenty years earlier.

Sandwiched between these two works – and this is what gave the programme such an intriguing shape – was a third Magnificat, composed in the latter part of the 17th century either by Jean Baptiste Lully or Couperin Le Grand, for two sopranos, organ and cello. The young sopranos were Amy Feston and Katherine Manley whose voices, although contrasting in character, blended together extremely well. As in the two Bach works, they brought to their performances a high degree of musicianship and insight. I do not know how much, if at all, they have sung together in the past, but I think we may have in the making here a future duo to compare with Felicity Lott and Ann Murray, which is high praise indeed.

Press clipping of review of Magnificat! concert in January 2003

Equally impressive were their colleagues William Purefoy, James Oxley and Jonathan May, in the two works by members of the Bach family. Purefoy, a wonderfully mellow counter-tenor – if that’s not a contradiction in terms – and the tenor James Oxley were heard to great advantage in the CPE Bach Magnificat, especially in ‘Deposuit potentes’ duet, while the bass-baritone Jonathan May, accompanied by chamber organ and cello, dealt powerfully with the unsympathetic acoustic of the Tonbridge School Chapel in, for example, ‘Quia fecit mihi omnia’, the one bass aria in JS Bach’s work.

The Cantate Choir, until recently known as the Chantry Choir based in Sevenoaks and directed by Robin Walker, director of music at St.Giles-in-the-Fields parish church in London, provided admirable support throughout, as did the London Pro Arte Baroque Orchestra led by Theresa Caudle and conducted by Murray Stewart. Special mention should also be made of the two oboes, who wove the usual Bach spell around many of the soprano arias, together with the splendid baroque trumpets, and the harpsichord and chamber organ parts performed by Kathryn Cok and James Longford. In the hands of all these dedicated musicians – soloists, chorus and instrumentalists – the causes of music and of medicine were, in equal measure, very well served.

Review of Charpentier, Bruckner, Poulenc

Reviewer – Roger Evernden

Review of the concert by The Cantate Choir at St Martin’s Church, Brasted – 30th November 2002

St.Martin’s Church, Brasted was full on Saturday evening when a very enthusiastic audience supported the Sevenoaks-based Cantate Choir under its new conductor, Robin Walker. The choir members are all experienced, local singers, but the conductor, organist and soprano soloist are young professional musicians; a blend which certainly produced splendid results in this programme of liturgical music by Charpentier, Bruckner and Poulenc.

The church is notable for its striking new roof and beautiful organ – both works of great craftsmanship. The organ was heard in accompaniment and solo roles. Steven Grahl captured truly authentic French Baroque sounds in the attractive noels which act as interludes in Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit. As accompanist in Poulenc’s Gloria he displayed extraordinary virtuosity, producing genuine French cathedral sonorities. He was always sensitive to Robin Walker’s authoritative conducting and soprano soloist, Benedikte Moes’s fluid and expressive lines.

Interestingly, Charpentier’s Mass, because of its lack of contrast in the vocal textures and tonalities characteristic of this seventeenth century style, restricted the choir to a rather monochrome style. The liturgical scenario was confirmed by Robin Walker’s cathedral-choir style of conducting. This elicited a smooth, warm-toned but unremarkable, and occasionally imprecise choral sound. However, delightful interludes were interpolated by solo voices and small ensembles from within the choir.

Holding the choir back in this way meant that the bolder contrasts in tone and dynamics needed for Bruckner’s motets were particularly telling when they arrived. Here the passion and intensity of Bruckner’s Romanticism, coupled with his genuine religious austerity, made a fascinatingly shifting musical scene.

Poulenc’s Gloria is an extraordinary amalgam of sacred and secular theatricality. This enabled Robin Walker, now with a more secular conducting style, to draw long, sinuous lines from his choir, but also contrast them with incisive attacks and striking dynamic contrasts. Ensemble was tight, yet flexible. In the movements with soprano solo, Benedikte Moes sang antiphonally with the choir, at other times her voice floating above them. She demonstrated an effortlessly impressive range of pitch and tonal control. She could be both operatic and hauntingly introspective.

This was an evening where the musicians communicated directly with their appreciative audience. Clearly both the choir and its conductor will go from strength to strength as they work together in the future.

Review of the Bach, Corelli, Poulenc & Handel Concert

Phoenix flies high

Reviewer – FL Dunkin Wedd

Review of the concert by The Cantate Choir with the Corelli Consort at St Martin’s Church, Brasted – 25th May 2002

As so often, the tone of this concert was set from the very first note: Cantate’s opening to Bach’s Jesu meine Freude was confident, full-bodied and spiritual, setting the standard for the whole evening.

Those who seek to walk in the steps of the Chantry Choir aim high. Chantry established a peerless reputation with performances of near professional standard; after their demise The Cantate Choir – with many of the same members – has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes, their former esteem evidenced by a long queue of conductors hoping to be associated with them. On this showing Cantate have nothing to fear from comparison with their forebears.

In fact fear – or the lack of it – was a bit of a theme in this concert. When a new choir chooses to start their very first programme with an icon of the choral repertoire like Jesu meine Freude it’s a confident start – and a courageous one. For all its familiarity, Jesu meine Freude is difficult to sing; it depends for variety on subtle changes in vocal colour, and can easily become wearisome in amateur hands – a challenge for choir and conductor alike.

But Cantate did not disappoint. From the first ebullient note, they displayed superb ensemble singing. They entered into the spirit of Bach’s masterpiece with gusto, allowing conductor Adrian Pitts to add subtle character to the work; the elision of the lines in the chorales was beautifully brought off, showing a good understanding between choir and conductor. Adrian Pitts was long associated with the Chantry Choir – and it shows.

There were some fine details hers – especially from altos and tenors; the altos were perhaps the stars of the evening, offering a wonderful bloom of tone, secure intonation and lots of eye contact with the conductor. There were some details for Cantate to work on in future; Bach’s trio mercilessly exposes any weakness, and confidence and intonation are at risk in the most professional performance; the Cantate sopranos could achieve a more caressing tone and more hushed pianissimo. But these caveats apart both choir and conductor did full justice to a demanding piece, producing a most moving performance.

Before the next choral work, Cantate’s clever programming had four notable local musicians play Corelli’s Trio Sonata in C op. 34 No. 1; like a sorbet between courses of a gourmet meal, this cleansed the aural palate. Vreni Gould and Robin Morrish (violins), Tony Gould (organ) and Elizabeth Moore (cello) are all fine players – and know each other well. It seemed that they joined effortlessly together in marvellous rapport, listening so intently to each other, attuned to the slightest nuances of each others’ playing.

Vreni Gould led with a wonderful lustrous silvery tone, firm but unassuming; husband Tony’s continuo was sensitive and supportive. So often when one hears a second violin one wants to take them out a buy them a square meal; this could never be the case with Robin Morrish, who knows exactly when to take centre stage, exactly how to support without dominating – rare qualities. Elizabeth Moore’s luminous cello playing was characterised as ever by grace and elegance – always sensitive, never forgetting the spiritual dimension. All four have the technical mastery that allows them to relax and enjoy the music – and their enjoyment was infectious. The cheerful and melodic Corelli was a good choice – music for pleasure, played with love.

As we’ve seen, Cantate don’t duck a challenge. Poulenc’s Four Penitence Motets are complex both emotionally and harmonically, and as difficult to sing as the Bach – though for very different reasons.

The programme notes suggested that these four motets represent a normally frivolous composer in deeply religious mood – but Poulenc is more complex that that. Spirit and spirituality are interwoven so closely that they cannot be separated; in these miraculous motets powerful expression is given to the religious uncertainty that typifies the twentieth century. Written in 1938-9, they embody the looming wars – one remembered, one foreshadowed – that gave rise to this questioning of faith.

Again the Cantate Choir gave us a wonderful opening, presaging good things to come. Balance and dynamics were now perfected, and Adrian Pitts finely managed subtle changes of character. The choir coped admirably with the harmonic language, especially in the fourth movement where Poulenc’s Gallic wit comes to the fore. These are complex and expressive works, and it’s hard to imagine a performance where their contradictory qualities could be better balanced, or one more moving. In the third movement one could have wished for the sopranos to concentrate more on tone quality than volume: the top line will always be heard without the need for strong projection. One would have liked a more firm and focused sound in the bass. But these quibbles only serve to show how close to perfect these performances were.

The Corelli Consort returned for Bach’s Sinfonia from the Easter Oratorio, in a marvellous arrangement by Norman Carrell. Although again a refreshment to the palate, this was much more than an amuse-bouche – more like Bach’s double violin concerto in miniature, with Vreni Gould and Robin Morrish swapping phrase for heartfelt phrase. Never were Bach’s runs and trills thrown off with mere technical bravura: every one was beautifully played – and here again, Elizabeth Moore’s grave and thoughtful cello playing was crucial in setting the mood. This performance alone was worth the admission price.

Last came Handel’s Zadok the Priest, cleverly placed at the end of the programme, not the beginning – and again Cantate showed great courage. The piece is so well known that it begs comparison with the ‘perfect’ studio recordings we have all heard. It can easily turn into a bit of a shout – but in these hands never did so: the vocal tone was warm, the sound was bright and focused, diction was clear, and intonation was accurate. The dynamic range was perhaps better handled here than anywhere else in the programme.

And here also Tony Gould’s organ playing came into its own with wonderfully chosen registration, building up splendidly to the climactic choir entry. The choir obviously know the piece well and could probably sing it by heart – in fact I would have liked to hear them do so; singing without books sharpens listening skills and encourages eye-contact with the conductor.

This was a concert of fearless programming, cleverly varied, with a capacity (and rapturous) audience; very high standards of singing and conducting – an example of future Cantate concerts.