Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir St Oswald’s Church, Ashbourne, April 20 2018 by Richard Bratby
There’s a lot of nonsense talked about contemporary classical music, but when a composer works within an established tradition, for performers and listeners who know them, they can still produce music that’s appealing, communicative and (hopefully) enduring. In the 1940s, the Rev Walter Hussey of St Matthew’s, Northampton, commissioned new music from Britten and Kenneth Leighton. In the same spirit the Abbotsholme Arts Society has celebrated its 50thanniversary by commissioning Paul Spicer – the Society’s former Artistic Director – to write a short new choral work for his Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir.
Sounding Music is an unaccompanied setting of verses in praise of music by Walter de la Mare (the idea came from the society’s current Artistic Director, Neil Millensted). Spicer describes it as a partsong, but that doesn’t quite do justice to the range and sophistication of the writing. Recognisably in the English tradition, its three short stanzas glow with melody, but also find space for some striking touches of vocal colour: cool male-voice harmonies to evoke deep waters, a short, tolling ostinato to evoke the passing of time, and radiant climaxes, topped by blazing sopranos and altos.
That same freshness and clarity – a real characteristic of this choir – made for vivacious performances of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Leighton’s Let All the World (both Hussey commissions), and a characterful account of Bach’s Jesu, meine Freude, tastefully accompanied by organist Callum Alger on the organ. And Robin Morton was an impassioned tenor soloist in Leighton’s Crucifixus pro nobis – matched only by that rarest of things in a non-professional British choir: a team of tenors and basses who sounded as ardent and as bright as the female singers. St Oswald’s positively rang.