Feel miles away, a step from George St
There’s just something about the atmosphere at Christ Church St Laurence. You walk in, straight from busy and grimy George St, and what materialises could not strike a greater contrast – the hazy, enchanting gloom of this beautiful old church. All of a sudden, you feel miles away.
It’s a perfect venue for a Lenten concert, which this afternoon featured the Requiem settings of Howells and Fauré. These two works, alongside a suite of 17th-century motets, found the Choir of Christ St Laurence on top form and proved ideal foils for both the meditative atmosphere of the church and the plaintive character of the Lenten season.
Two motets by perhaps the greatest English composer, Henry Purcell (Hear my prayer, O Lord; Remember not, Lord, our offences) and one by Purcell’s predecessor at Westminster Abbey, John Blow (Salvator mundi) were chosen to introduce the concert, and were well-rehearsed and delivered with admirable clarity. Dissonances were expressively wrung out, particularly in the Salvator mundi, which was notable also for the Choir’s thoughtful word-painting.
Howells’ elegiac Requiem setting, composed in 1932 amidst personal turmoil in the composer’s life, is, while deeply heartfelt and expressive, notoriously unforgiving to the musicians performing it. Long phrases, complex harmonic structures and extremes of dynamic mean the Choir are required to display exceptional control. The Choir of CCSL certainly did so; their performance was confident and highly emotionally engaging, with that crispness of sound and attention to detail that church choirs do so well. Neil McEwan’s tempi brought out the best in his singers, as they were able to indulge the subtle beauty of the music without getting bogged down. Occasional tuning inaccuracies aside, the architecture of the Requiem was remarkably solid, with a solid bass foundation, glossy soprano sound and an impressive line-up of soloists who suffused the performance with solemnity and passion.
The Requiem of Gabriel Faure, meanwhile, is arguably a more rose-coloured – but no less poignant – setting. The Choir’s tenors rose to the challenge of the Introit’s famously long phrases with power and an innate sense of ensemble, while the rest of the choir revelled in the terraced dynamics of Exaudi orationem meam. Bass soloist David Russell demonstrated highly developed musicianship in his expressively phrased Hostias, and the blend of male voices in the Sanctus was robust without being over-sung (although this reviewer wished the sopranos would have let fly a little more in that ‘Hosanna in excelsis’, surely one of the most spine-tingling moments in Western music!). Soloist Jennifer Rollins handled the delicate Pie Jesu with a controlled fragility which also pervaded the In paradisum, concluding this concert on an uplifting note.
The Choir of Christ Church St Laurence is to be congratulated for getting the Easter season off to such an expressive start, thanks to the thoughtful direction of Neil McEwan and the sensitivity of the choir to its own strengths.
Christ Church St Laurence | 2015 Lenten concert | Sunday 22 March at 3pm