St. Peter’s Church Petersfield Saturday 23rd March

The Renaissance Choir presents ‘Ave Maria’ was emblazoned across the poster and programme for their latest concert at St Peter’s Church on Saturday.

From this, the first time attender at a Renaissance Choir concert might be expecting a variety of different settings of this well-known text. However, regular audience members would know that the programme was highly likely to be much more interesting and varied than that, and this certainly proved to be the case.

In a well-filled programme, there were in fact only five Ave Maria settings – and each quite varied from the other. The first, by contemporary Latvian composer Rihards Dubra was described by conductor Peter Gambie, as being minimalistic in style. Beautifully sung, this haunting work did include the kind of repetition associated with minimalism, but it was brief repetition that became hypnotic rather than incessant and tedious. Gustav Holst’s setting for soprano and alto voices is in four parts and the very high lying soprano line was handled with confidence and clarity.  The three remaining settings of this text were by Byrd, Parsons and Victoria, and these were sensibly placed throughout the concert.

The other choral items were of texts paying homage to, or referring to the Virgin Mary and there was much here to enjoy.

In Paul Mealor’s ‘O Sanctissima Maria’ the sonorous and frequently dissonant harmonies were sung with confidence and, when needed, great delicacy – all supported by resonant low notes from the basses. Towards the end of Górecki’s ‘Totus Tuus’, I began to wonder just how much quieter it was possible for the choir to sing – surprisingly, quite a lot, it transpired! Rachmaninov’s ‘Bogoroditse Dyevo’ also featured some remarkable sustained and quiet singing – giving the impression that the entire piece was sung almost in one breath, this was a masterclass in legato singing.

In Poulenc’s  ‘Salve Regina’ the composer’s idiosyncratic phrasing, and unusual harmonic shifts were well handled, though there were just a couple of moments of melodic uncertainty. I particularly enjoyed Pärt’s ‘Virgencita’, as with the Mealor, the dissonances were attacked with confidence and vigour, and the various chromatic moments were convincing and effective. As might be expected the singers handled the multi-voiced singing required for Lassus’s ‘Ave Regina Caelorum’ and Vittoria’s ‘Ave Maria’ with great style and assurance, the latter item bringing the concert to a fitting conclusion. Throughout, conductor Peter Gambie directed with relaxed and clear direction.

With any concert featuring such a wealth of choral singing some contrast is needed, and each half of this programme featured items by solo voices from within the choir. In the first half, Rachele Newman sang Joni Mitchell’s Little Green – a piece describing the composer’s feelings on the birth of her only child. This was sung in an appropriately relaxed idiom with clear diction, good tuning and a pleasing, well-supported tone. During the second half of the concert Isabella van Elferen and Melissa Wingfield sang a group of songs inspired by Mary – ranging from the English traditional song ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ (c.1698) to ‘Tear Drop’ by Massive Attack.  Here there was an ideal blend between the two voices, and enhanced by discreet choreography this was clearly well rehearsed – the dissonances at the end of verses in ‘Het Was een Maged Uitverkoren’ (a Dutch devotional song from the Middle Ages) were perfectly placed.

It is good to see and hear that the Renaissance Choir is maintaining its reputation for fine choral singing and interesting programming.  This fine concert was well attended by an enthusiastic audience.  Their next two performances are Saturday July 13th Church of the Holy Spirit Southsea, and Saturday October 26th St. Peter’s Church Petersfield.

Ian Schofield

And some informal comments:

“My friend said it was beautiful and like being hugged with a warm blanket.”

“‘Thank you for your beautiful singing…such a gorgeous programme of contrasting, lush music.’’

“You all have beautiful voices, and your overall blend is just wonderful.”

Isabella van Elferen and Melissa Wingfield

Photo credits David Harris