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Germany Tour - July 2018

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A stream of polyphonic waves

The Festival of European Church Music: The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge provides a brilliant climax

What the 30 young men and women of the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge offered in the Minster was simply out of this world. The Festival of European Church Music reached such a brilliant climax on Thursday evening that only superlatives come to mind.

Some were in the swimming pool, a few went for a walk, many just slept for a long time, everyone was amazed that alcoholic drinks are so cheap here, answered Nina and Susie, two singers from Trinity College Choir when asked by Katharina Ott at the pre-concert talk what they did on their day off. These are, thank God, completely normal young people. However.

It could be said that such perfect choral singing has never been heard before. Then something comes to mind: once before, five years ago, Stephen Layton and his ensemble generated similar enthusiasm at St Augustine’s Church. And it is almost impossible to believe that although the conductor was the same, not one of these choir members was there at the time. How is it even possible that Layton can maintain such a level despite such a high turnover?

And, what’s more, even though very few of his singers do not study music, but a wide variety of other subjects (including many languages, which of course helps when learning texts and on tours).

This time, in the Minster, it’s even better than in 2013, the friendly, modest conductor observes: The wonderful space in the church gives the sound the opportunity that it needs to unfold. So the difficult acoustics in the Minster are that simple?

What was it that caused the listeners in the completely full Minster to hardly dare breathe for one and a half hours, many had to wipe a tear from the corner of their eyes, and those on the stage received a standing ovation – and the thunderous applause would have continued as long as the choir chose to stand there. Of course, it is first and foremost the magician Stephen Layton himself who seems to create incredible tension, an energy field that surrounds the entire choir. He directs – as he did five years ago – with just a pencil in his right hand – not particularly spectacular, often beating relatively far in advance; he rarely uses large gestures, such as at the last point in the programme (Arnold Bax’s “This worldes joie”), but then these are dramatic highlights and overwhelming moments of soun.


From pianissimo to fortississimo: controlled sound

And what Trinity College Choir has to offer in terms of sound is phenomenal: from the most delicate pianissimo to the fortississimo, the sound is always controlled. Openings perfectly together; captivating endings floating away in the heights of the Minster; the intonation is absolutely flawless, and the ensemble showed no signs of fatigue after 90 minutes (even the two ladies who were entrusted with solos during the second encore and handled them brilliantly).

There was a “body of sound” in the truest sense of the word, in which the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. Although one did not see it, all were breathing together; particularly in the very demanding new music, they must have been breathing chorally but it was not noticeable. All voices in the choir radiate in a straight line, without any tremolo, flawless and yet never without warmth.

Stephen Layton, as the two female singers revealed in advance, arranges the choir differently, depending on the scoring and the space. Is this the secret of perfection? In the first row, sopranos and altos mixed according to a system that only Layton knows. In the second row on the left (seen from the audience), several basses, on the right end tenors, but also women’s voices of both types and in the third row representatives of all four voice parts. The attempt to acoustically identify “section leaders” failed: if I thought I had identified a soprano soloist fourth from left, in the next piece another glittering voice shone from over there on the right; apparently there are simply no leading voices: everyone could perform as a soloist but together they find a common tonal colour.

But each one is also responsible for him or herself, no-one is guided by their neighbour: “We don’t have any ‘passengers’”, says one of the singers, undoubtedly meaning ‘hangers-on’. Since the whole choir sings by heart – English, German, Russian, Polish, Latvian, on the previous tour also Japanese – all eyes are on the conductor or the other singers. There was certainly interaction amongst the choir.

Only two voices could be identified individually: the petite blonde soprano, third from right in the first row, who intoned the opening notes – without a tuning fork or any other instrument. The young woman must have perfect pitch. One could also identify a young man on the far left: Where does this slender young man find such extremely low notes? The range of a normal choir bass goes down to E, maybe even E flat. Here we heard a C or a B, so another third or even a fourth lower than that.


As if this music were at home in the Minster

Thus exhilarating music filled the Minster. During the first five pieces from the 16th century, sung without a break, one thought: These compositions are simply at home here. Polyphonic waves coursed through the choir and the building. Through this calm yet concentrated singing luminous clouds of sound floated through the Gothic walls. Settings of “Ave Maria” made an arc from the Renaissance to the Modern, and lo and behold, despite a gap of 400 years between them, the works were astonishingly close. The perfect choral culture ensured that one listened in wonder even to compositions from our own century: this is exactly how it must sound. Dissonances and complicated rhythms suddenly don’t sound unpleasant to the ear of the deeply-touched listener.

Unfortunately every single piece cannot be discussed here: outstanding highlights were perhaps Palestrina’s five-part motet “Exultate Deo” at the beginning, with incredibly beautiful phrasing in all voice parts. Thrilling, Arvo Pärt’s “Bogoroditse Djevo” (composed in 1990) with its alternating meditative sustained notes and rhythmic chanting. “O magnum mysterium” by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (2007) required extreme highs and lows. “Agnus Dei” by Ralph Vaughan Williams was multi-layered, with solos and tutti alternating organically, and the highly emotional “This worldes joie” by Arnold Bax was rich with contrast: dull rhythmic chanting where death is concerned, shining radiantly in the metaphors of nature, elegiac uncertainty in conclusion and the hope of salvation. After two encores, Stephen Layton sent his singers into the warm summer evening: they wanted “to celebrate the birthday of one of the singers”. Looking at these young people one couldn’t tell that they had just presented  musical excellence.

The two organists Alexander Hamilton and Asher Oliver, both undoubtedly highly qualified, may forgive the fact that their organ intermezzi were perceived almost solely as the provision of rest periods for the choir. The listeners also needed these moments in which they could bring the sensory tension down a few levels. Because watch out: this music could be addictive.