Concert review: All Shall Be Well (The Exultate Singers)

9th May 2012 St Pancras Church, Euston Road
Exultate Singers, David Ogden (conductor), Richard May (cello) and Richard Johnson (organ)

As the closing concert in the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, The Exultate Singers presented a tour de force of works by four living composers: Tavener, Nystedt, Panufnik and Grier.

A single cello from the back of St Pancras Parish Church opened John Tavener’s hypnotic Svyati, with a consistent and confident low E drone from the second basses supporting sonorous interjections from the full choir. Interspersed with further cello motifs derived from chanting of the Easter Orthodox Church, the choir achieved a superbly maintained intensity throughout.

A pre-concert talk by Roxanna Panufnik gave an enlightening introduction to her music, in particular tonight’s UK premiere, her Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. This setting of the familiar and oft-set Evening Service canticles contained hallmarks of the Anglican choral tradition — antiphonal choirs, arching phrases with sopranos in graceful parallel thirds — together with Panufnik’s own trademark tonalities and choral textures, underpinned by an undulating, persistent organ accompaniment. Panufnik interweaves the catholic text of the Ave Maria, by way of further departure from the standard Anglican setting of the canticles.
This piece provided the standout moment of the night, a glorious segue from the end of the Magnificat into the Gloria, the delivery of which had me gasping. A fine achievement, this piece will work as well in a liturgical context as it did in a concert setting; we can expect – hope – to hear it reverberating around our great cathedrals before long.

The Nystedt Stabat Mater is a slightly more challenging piece — as much for the listener as for the performers perhaps — with harsh dissonant passages, an extended text comprising ten stanzas and a repeated concerto-like tussle between the solo cello and full choir. The choir’s consistency of tuning, blend and confidence wasn’t quite as evident here as the rest of the programme but the their strengths were nevertheless on display here too, not least their ability to move effortlessly between declamatory phrases and very tender, pianissimo singing.
The choir’s diction was superb on words like ‘crucifixo’ and cellist Richard May shone in his cadenza.

Francis Grier’s Sword in the Soul is a seven movement work bringing together all this evening’s forces – choir, organ and cello – and was written as a dramatic meditation for Good Friday, set to a text by Rowan Williams. Many movements, notably the Nunc Dimittis and Lovely tears of lovely eyes, showcased that this choir boasts an array of accomplished soloists as well as ensemble singers. All sang with evident relish phrases such as ‘the purple of mockery’ and great tenderness ‘thou breakest my heart in two’. The final movement tells us the ‘The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed’. As were we.

The concert concluded with more Panufnik, All Shall be Well, a piece commissioned by Exultate Singers in 2009 to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (and whose title is shared by their recent recording on the Naxos label).

There was much to admire and little to fault in this performance. By any standards, professional or amateur, The Exultate Singers present an unusually delightful “full audience experience” — conductor David Ogden’s genial welcome, terrific programme notes and design, committed singing throughout — and are capable of holding an audience rapt for 90 minutes of modern music.

Categories: London, Music, Reviews

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