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Australia 2016

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Trinity College Cambridge Choir bring voices of angels to Musica Viva tour

City Recital Hall Angel Place
Monday 25 July

The scholar choristers of Trinity College Cambridge are the brainiest singers you’re likely to hear, and it shows in the intelligence they bring to their music.

With 700 years of history, and alumni who have included Isaac Newton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lord Byron, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, a Musica Viva concert tour by the choir under their director Stephen Layton is always going to be special.

The 35 men and women sang the first four pieces without him, however, and, as for the entire program, from memory. Considering the first half was, in Layton’s words, a “musical aeroplane” taking in Old Church Slavonic, Finnish, Latin and English languages, this was an impressive achievement.

True to Layton’s philosophy of drawing together the old and the new “and confusing the boundaries between them”, the evening started with 80-year-old Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s exquisite one-minute long Bogoróditse Djévo (Mother of God and Virgin), before stepping back 400 years to the great Tudor sacred composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis for two gemlike miniatures, then into the 17th century of Henry Purcell’s wonderful anthem Remember Not, Lord, Our Offences.

The remainder of the evening was planted firmly in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The main work of the evening, Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir, is an overlooked treasure of the choral repertoire. Its four movements were aptly described by Layton as “Alpine”, showing all the spiritual awe and wonder that mountains inspire.

All the pieces on the program showcased not only the faultless intonation, diction and control of the choir but a magnificent array of soloists as well. At least a dozen sopranos, altos, tenors and basses took the spotlight at some stage or other.

The second half also featured a world premiere of Australian composer Joseph Twist’s Hymn of Ancient Lands, commissioned by Musica Viva. It is a setting of Caedmon’s Hymn, which is one of the earliest recorded poems, written in the Anglo-Saxon Old English dialect, and here featuring a lovely folk-like solo from a soprano over hummed chords.

It left you wondering how that magical blend of voices must sound like in the original setting

Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’ The Heavens’ Flock showed the choir in full voice — a hair-raising effect in the superb acoustic of Angel Place and which left you wondering how that magical blend of voices must sound like in the original setting.

Paweł Łukaszewski was born in Czestochowa, the Catholic capital of Poland where Pope John Paul preached his first sermon and home of the famed Black Madonna icon, and it was attending services there as a young boy that inspired his love of choral music.

Layton explained that he had been recording an album of Łukaszewski’s works and realised late in the day that he was “a few minutes short”, so he contacted the composer who had left the studio and was on his way to the airport and the beautiful simple Nunc dimittis, composed on his journey, was the result.

The last work on the program was a piece by one of the singers, 23-year-old organ scholar Owain Park, The Wings of the Wind, in which the musical phrases were passed rapidly around the choir, culminating in the lines “hailstones and coals of fire” drawn from the Book of Psalms.

The two encores were a marked change of mood. As a nod to their second visit to “this great city” Layton and his choristers who were last here six years ago performed the Seekers’ hit pop song, The Carnival is Over, featuring a delightful tenor solo, followed by a dee-wop version of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing for a brilliantly theatrical ending.

The concert is repeated at City Recital Hall Angel Place on Saturday, July 30, at 2pm.

Steve Moffatt