Exemplary St Matthew Passion: GCC, AGO and soloists

Holy Trinity Church Guildford, 14th March 2020

Despite the increasing disruption of Covid-19, a large audience came to enjoy Bach’s monumental St Matthew Passion in Guildford’s Holy Trinity Church on 14th March. Under the meticulous and authoritative direction of Max Barley, the Guildford Chamber Choir, Academia del Guado d’Oro, the Guildford Cathedral girl choristers and guest soloists gave us a truly superb performance, one that will surely be treasured for a long time.

Bach was not one for half measures, and this magnificent masterpiece is full of intricate detail in every movement. The composer was not merely building on a well-established tradition of baroque settings of the passion; he expanded it in unprecedented ways. It’s a huge challenge for performers. As for the audience, the impact is colossal; there is so much to admire, but focused listening brings wonderful rewards.

The four guest soloists were well chosen. The youthful yet refined voices of soprano Camilla Saba Davies and alto Bernadette Johns were a delight, complemented by the distinguished maturity of Nicholas Mulroy as Evangelist and Matthew Brook as Christus. Mulroy was a star, delivering the extensive and demanding evangelist part with consummate command and amazing dramatic resourcefulness.

From the Bach revival in the 19th century until 50 or so years ago, performances tended to be somewhat ponderous, with too many performers, both choral and orchestral. These days, we have a closer regard for what Bach had in mind, and smaller forces, both choral and instrumental, allow for livelier speeds and wonderful clarity of detail. This performance saw a principal choir of three dozen singers (Bach had two dozen) and an orchestra of 20, with both choir and orchestra dividing into two groups, plus the girls choir (Bach had a group of boys) for the chorale melodies in the first and last movements of Part 1. Balance throughout was superb, though the girls choir was somewhat under-powered. The main choir was thoroughly rehearsed, rising to the challenge of the principal choruses and equally alert in the short interjections, so vital to the dramatic course of the story. In addition to the vital roles of the four main soloists, a number of other solos were impressively taken by members of the choir.

The orchestral playing was a consistent delight. Period instruments - each orchestra having two flutes, two oboes, five strings and an organ - all so different from their modern equivalents, add such clarity to the composer’s intricate textures. The programme book was carefully compiled, with text and translations, an informative essay by John Veale, useful information about the choirs and excessively generous information about the soloists. However, more could have been offered about the remarkable orchestra, especially since some instruments would have been unfamiliar to many listeners. The two oboists also played oboe da caccia, for instance, and the cellist of orchestra 2 changed to viol da gamba for No 66 - a magnificent display of virtuosity.

None of this performance could have been achieved to such a high standard without the devoted work and inspiring leadership of the conductor. Max Barley deserves endless praise.


SEBASTIAN FORBES

Prestigious choir launches 40th anniversary season with French music

Holy Trinity Church Guildford, 16th November 2019

The lively tones of Francis Poulenc’s Exultate Deo began the Guildford Chamber Choir’s 40th season in fine style. These virtuosic sounds exhibited a choir that has gone from strength to strength, and the fine acoustic of Holy Trinity Church enhanced some glorious music. Maurice Duruflé’s beautiful,

Gregorian-chant-inspired Quatre Motets, calmer in mood showed to full advantage the tremendous dynamic range of the choir under their conductor Max Barley.

Pierre Villette had a direct, attractive style but with much of his teacher Duruflé’s influence, and his Hymne à la Vierge received a fine performance, indicating that the choir members had studied their French pronunciation.

A very welcome guest was the choir’s first conductor Peter Wright, recently retired as organist of Southwark Cathedral. He gave two solo contributions: Louis Vierne’s Feux follets full of will-o’the wisp harmonies and snatches of tunes, and Jean Langlais’ Easter-Vigil-inspired Incantation pour un jour saint, which showed the Holy Trinity organ (despite its lack of French stops) to good, and loud, advantage.

The concert was given in memory of founder member Ingrid Terry who died a few months ago. Peter and the entire family were there to listen to an incomparable performance of one of Ingrid’s favourite pieces, Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. This lovely piece sounded very effective and moving, sung as it was from memory and with the choir voices mixed up.

Ingrid’s and Peter’s daughter Annelies played a wonderful cello solo in the Pie Jesu movement from Duruflé’s well-loved Requiem, complimenting the beautiful tones of the mezzo soprano Anna Boucher. This movement is the kernel of a work which is shot through with subtle plainsong melodies to great effect. It received a performance of great integrity, with super dynamic contrasts, and Peter Wright accompanied skilfully on the organ. Martin Johnson was the excellent baritone soloist in one of the more dramatic movements, the Libera me.

A collection was taken in aid of Headway, a Surrey charity providing therapy for adults suffering from brain injury. The Chamber Choir’s next concert will be a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on Saturday 14th March.

Shelagh Godwin

Freiburg choir a joy to hear

10th August 2019 (Holy Trinity Church, Guildford)

The 40th anniversary of the twinning of Guildford and Freiburg was celebrated in an enchanting way on Saturday 10th August 2019, when the John Sheppard Ensemble gave a concert at Holy Trinity Church. The ensemble, founded thirty years ago and named after an English Tudor composer whose music they had performed at their first concert, were at the end of a week-long tour of the southern counties.

The thirty-strong choir, under their conductor Bernhard Schmidt, quickly made an impression as they launched into a striking Mass setting by Josef Rheinberger. Far from the workmanlike music one might have been expecting, this was music of high quality, owing much to the Venetian tradition of separated choirs and also to the music of Bach and Mendelssohn. Whereas the Latin pronunciation was strictly Germanic, the choir adopted an Italianate church-Latin pronunciation for Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor. This work, with its nuances of plainchant and folk melodies, contains many solo passages and the choir produced a fine cohort of soloists. It received a finely-crafted performance, a joy to hear.

The Songs of Farewell composed by Vaughan William’s teacher Hubert Parry are a tough assignment for any choir. The John Sheppard Ensemble brought them off beautifully, with a command of the English text equal to that of the best English choirs.

So far they had not sung anything in German, and for the first German work in the programme they graciously invited members of the Guildford Chamber Choir to join them in a performance of Rheinberger’s lovely Abendlied, a setting of the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus when they invited the risen Jesus to stay with them. Then, as an encore, the Ensemble spread themselves round the church for a magnificent performance of Max Reger’s Nachtlied.

The John Sheppard Ensemble was welcomed to Guildford by Barbara Ford on behalf of the Guildford Twinning Association and Jim Godwin on behalf of Guildford Chamber Choir, the joint hosts of the concert. The Mayor and Mayoress of Guildford were present, and a retiring collection was taken in support of Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Shelagh Godwin

Brahms Requiem introduces new conductor to Guildford Chamber Choir

17th November 2018 Guildford Chamber Choir under Max Barley (Holy Trinity Church, Guildford)

What better way for the new conductor of the Guildford Chamber Choir, Max Barley, a noted German enthusiast, to introduce himself to local audiences than to put on a performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutches Requiem? Far from being a traditional setting of the Latin Mass for the Dead, Brahms’s music is a setting of vernacular texts from the Lutheran Bible which aptly sum up the human predicament. Apart from containing glorious music, it is a cleverly wrought piece, and the careful listener will notice the recurrence albeit varied throughout of one three-note motif near the beginning of the work.

This performance in Holy Trinity Church, in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant and his wife and in aid of Guildford Citizens Advice, was probably the first airing of Iain Farrington’s effective scoring for piano and seven woodwind and string instruments. It certainly worked in that it reflected the richness of Brahms’s orchestral score: one wished occasionally for the addition of perhaps a horn or trombone in some of the climaxes. But, led by Simon Phillips’s magnificent piano playing, the instruments did brilliantly in the resonant acoustic. There were some particularly vivid, questioning effects in the third of the seven movements: ‘Lord, make me to know my end...’

The choir sang superbly throughout, with excellent enunciation, the immaculate tuning that we have come to expect from the Guildford Chamber Choir, and with a good sense of the subtle dynamics. Soft, sustained singing at the very beginning and end of the work contrasted with the boldness of such passages as ‘But the word of the Lord endureth for ever’, or the elaborate fugue, skilfully built over a resounding pedal note, to the words: ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God’.

The soprano and baritone solos were expertly sung by the husband-and-wife team Miranda and Martin Johnson, who appropriately sang from the chorus rather than standing out at the front. Miranda’s soaring lines in ‘And ye therefore now have sorrow’ were glorious, while Martin’s depiction of the ‘last trump’ was particularly evocative. During the first half, they sang three varying Brahms songs beautifully. These performances were framed by two wonderfully crafted motets by seventeenth-century composer Heinrich Schütz, both good vehicles for the superb tone which gives this choir its reputation.

Full marks, then, to a brilliant conductor, a superb choir, and an excellent instrumental ensemble.

Shelagh Godwin

Baroque Masters

3rd March 2018 (St Nicolas' Church, Guildford)

Under guest conductor Jeremy Summerly the Guildford Chamber Choir excelled themselves on Saturday 3rd March, when they presented a concert entitled ‘Voices and Viols’ in St Nicolas’ Church. The main focus of the programme was Dieterich Buxtehude, whose Membra Jesu Nostri was the main work. These seven cantatas, featuring meditations on different parts of the body of Jesus as He suffered on the Cross, was ideal for the Lenten season. It was also a musical revelation, with wonderful melodies and harmonies, and glorious solos performed by several capable members of the choir. Accompanying were Newe Vialles, a wonderful combination of violins, viols (particularly in one movement of the work), a chamber organ, and a theorbo: they all made a wonderful sound.

Buxtehude’s predecessor at Lübeck and also his father-in-law, Franz Tunder, also featured in the programme. His Streuet mit Palmen, a depiction of the first Palm Sunday, was full of descriptive writing and beautiful music, and, again, the choir’s vibrant performance was enhanced by appropriate solo contributions. The programme also included three delightfully restrained motets by members of the extensive Bach family.

Truly an evening to be remembered. The beneficiary charity was the Artventure Trust, a Guildford- based charity which allows vulnerable people to explore the visual arts in a safe and secure environment.

Shelagh Godwin

Conductor bows out in fine style

18th November 2017 (Holy Trinity Church, Guildford)


It was a programme suited to a damp November evening, and it drew a large audience. Since its foundation in 1980 the Guildford Chamber Choir has presented a large number of imaginative programmes. But last Saturday carried a sense of farewell: Stephen Grahl, conductor for the past eleven years, was saying goodbye.

The programme, suitably valedictory, began with the work Herbert Howells wrote after his young son’s tragic death in the 1930s. His beautifully crafted Requiem inspired full-toned, mellifluous singing from the 40-strong choir which included some lovely solos. Grahl had them in the palm of his hand as he responded to the many nuances in this wonderful work. He later conducted a performance of his own effective setting of the ancient words O nata lux; sixteenth-century composer Thomas Tallis’s setting of the same words also received a most sensitive performance, and both pieces were complemented by Howells’s evocative Master Tallis’s Testament, played on the organ by Gavin Roberts.

Wilbye’s incomparable madrigal Draw on, sweet night received a lovely performance from the choir, as did Bach’s wonderful funeral motet Komm, Jesu, Komm with its contrapuntal swirls of notes. Bach in a different guise featured in the second half. Norwegian composer Karl Nystedt adapted one of Bach’s chorales by dividing the choir into five sections and instructing each of them to sing Bach’s music at a different speed! It proved remarkably effective in the resonant acoustic of Holy Trinity Church. Bach’s Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern received a fine, joyful performance from Gavin Roberts, who gave up his seat at the organ to Stephen Grahl and moved to the piano for a remarkable piece Choral’s Dream by the French composer Thierry Escaich. I knew of no pieces for piano and organ and this was a fascinating introduction, if this particular dream was over-long.

Morten Lauridsen’s four Nocturnes proved to be extremely effective and, together with Holst’s lovely Nunc Dimittis, inspired the choir to their best singing in the evening. Presentations and a celebratory toast with prosecco followed this concert, and a collection was taken for the Jigsaw Trust which helps people with autism.

Shelagh Godwin

Small choir with a big following attracts a full house for concert

11th March 2017 (St Nicolas' Church, Guildford)

CHOEUR et Orgue - a daunting title for a concert by one of Guildford's best small choirs, the Guildford Chamber Choir. It drew a good house at St Nicolas' Church, Guildford. The music dated from the early 20th century and the choral items were interspersed by organ items from Louis Vierne's Pièces de Fantaisie, performed brilliantly by the choir's musical director, Stephen Grahl. The most successful pieces were those drawing on the 'will o'the wisp' moods, with delicate figurations darting all over the keyboard and a fluency worthy of Olivier Messiaen. The more familiar Carillon de Westminster also received a welcome airing.

Francis Poulenc underwent something of a religious reawakening after the tragic death of his friend and one of the products of this was his Mass in G. This was performed with great skill by the choir, with delightful contribution of soprano soloist Katie Offord. Even more notable was the wonderful cantata Un soir de niege, composed shortly after the liberation of Paris in 1944 when things were still very bleak. The performance was incredibly moving.

Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Jean Françaix wrote very little choral music but this does not belie the sheer quality of the choral music that they did compose. The intense atmosphere of Debussy's settings of the charmingly archaic poetry of Charles d'Orléans, with its tender love poetry, its depiction of the tambourin and its denunciation of winter, was well conveyed by the choir. Françaix's Trois Poèmes de Paul Valéry has only received a couple of performances and that given by the Guildford Chamber Choir was masterful indeed, tricky passages being well articulated.

Ravel's setting of his own words, written while waiting to be enlisted in the army at the beginning of the First World War, have a sense of melancholy about them. The cautionary Nicolette was full of character, Helen Pritchard and others produced lovely solos in Trois beaux oiseaux and the Ronde, with its depiction of 'myrmodones, hamadryades', was a tour de force of virtuosity.

The beneficiary charity was the Rainbow Trust, which supports families of seriously-ill children.

Shelagh Godwin

for the Surrey Advertiser

Wonderful evening of poetry and music at St Peter's

18th June 2016 (St Peter's Church, Old Woking)

The Song of Songs, attributed to King Solomon, is a collection of evocative poetry about love. It is a wonderful vehicle for musical settings, several of which were performed by Guildford Chamber Choir at St Peter's Church in Old Woking on Saturday June 18. Conductor Steven Grahl devised the programme in an imaginative way. The love poems were interspersed with movements from two settings of the Latin Mass, beginning with Victoria's incomparable, contrapuntal Missa Vidi speciosam, which found the choir in fine form, even if some voices stuck out a bit in the dry acoustic. This was soon solved by my moving to a seat further back, when the pure blend and excellence of the choir became apparent.

Two settings of words from the Song of Songs by Palestrina were striking for their emotional fulsomeness, while Anima mea, liquefacta est by Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus was a gloriously descriptive account of the words. The choir's fluency increased as the programme progressed, through Jacob Praetorius's Surge, propera amica meaand more movements of the Victoria Mass, while organist Matthew Pickard introduced two emotionally intense Bach chorale preludes - wonderful on the church's late 19th century organ.

After the interval the choir launched into a Spanish export to Mexico, the lively Missa Ego flos campi by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, in which the more chordal textures than we had heard in the first half were backed up sensitively by the organ. Twentieth-century settings of the Song of Songs followed - Bairstow's 'Victorian' harmonies were contrasted with Walton's harmonically acerbic Set me as a seal, in which two members of the choir gave excellent solos. More acerbic still, but extremely effective, was Sebastian Forbes's My promised bride, which was performed with great skill. More conservative in style was David Bednall's Charity for solo organ, while contributions from Toronto-based Healey Willan and Cambridge-based Patrick Hadley, followed by the final movements of Padilla's Mass, concluded a wonderful evening of music.

The concert was in support of the Samson Centre for MS sufferers, and was followed by a party to mark Steven Grahl's 10 years as conductor of the choir.


Shelagh Godwin

for the Surrey Advertiser (Friday 1 July 2016)


The pure joy of Vespers

5th March 2016 (St Nicolas' Church, Guildford)

Rachmaninoff wrote his Vespers, a musical setting of liturgy from four succeeding services, in 1915. Its derivation from Russian Orthodox chant is more apparent than real, as many of the melodies are the composer's own. They are strikingly different, however, from the soaring romantic big tunes of the orchestral works. The way Rachmaninoff uses the melodies in this work for an unaccompanied choir is impressive and makes considerable demands on the singers.

The crowds flocking to St Nicolas' Church last Saturday (March 5) were in for a treat. The Guildford Chamber Choir performed the entire work with movements interspersed with seven of Rachmaninoff's piano preludes in appropriate keys. This was an original and effective idea. Gavin Roberts performed these difficult pieces with aplomb but was somewhat hampered by the inadequate instrument.

The All Night Vigil, to give it its more accurate title, contains tremendous textural variety. Sometimes soloists sing against or above the choir, sometimes the sonority of bells is invoked, sometimes there are cries of despair, sometimes there are exultant shouts of pure joy, sometimes there is extreme simplicity and sometimes there are multi-layered textures verging on the orchestral. Although there is nothing, apart from the sheer scale and difficulty of the work, to prevent it from being performed liturgically, this was a concert performance in a very appropriate venue, with the church's iconic crucifix displayed above the singers. That said, there was a supreme spirituality about this performance.

Well rehearsed and accurate, the choir sang convincingly and the words could be heard even at the back of the church. I am told on good authority that the Russian pronunciation was excellent. There were no really deep-voiced Russian-style basses in the choir, but no lack of good bass notes notwithstanding. Well shaped by conductor Steven Grahl, the performance contained plenty of dynamic variety. Perhaps in places the soloists could have been more prominent above the choral texture, but the overall effect was stunning.

Shelagh Godwin

for the Surrey Advertiser (Friday 11 March 2016)

Guildford Chamber Choir present imaginative contribution to Guildford Festival

14th March 2015 (St Nicolas' Church, Guildford)

In view of the devastating news from Vanuatu, the Guildford Chamber Choir’s contribution to the Guildford International Music Festival had an appropriate title: Cloudburst. It was an imaginative collection of unfamiliar twentieth-century music. It began with William Mathias’s colourful settings of Songs by Shakespeare which invoked the Celtic sensitivities of the composer, as much in the evocative piano accompaniment as in the vocal lines. Particularly attractive was the movement ‘Sigh no more, ladies’, in which the men whistled expertly, helped along by a descant recorder, while the women sang.

The subsequent applause merged unintentionally with the next item, Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, a clever piece of rhythmic interaction performed by Oliver Cox and Owen Gunnell, who make up the percussion ensemble O Duo. The next piece was even more fascinating: John Cage’s Living Room Music was performed on a combination of enamel and china dishes (the acoustics of one being modified by the presence of a lemon), magazines, and newspapers set in what passed for a ‘living room’. In this O Duo were joined by the choir’s conductor Steven Grahl and pianist Gavin Roberts. O Duo’s skills as a percussion ensemble came to the fore in Searching, based on their own improvisations and played on a combination of tuned percussion instruments.

Eric Whitacre’s Three Flower Songs presented a challenge easily met by the choir, singing unaccompanied throughout and giving much attention to the intense words of Emily Dickinson, Edmund Waller, and Lorca. The choir was joined by O Duo and Gavin Roberts on the piano in William Mathias’s setting of Dylan Thomas’s extremely dark poem Ceremony after a Fire Raid. This chilling piece received a rendering of great depth.

Cloudburst is a setting by Eric Whitacre of a poem by Octavio Paz. The words talk of drought and wilderness, sung unaccompanied by the choir, and then just when you think it is going to finish, the cloudburst comes, a wonderful depiction by percussion, piano, hand bells, and finger-clicking, which had the audience spellbound.


Shelagh Godwin