So, after enjoying my burger in Harringtons, I wandered across to the Great Hall expecting to sit down and enjoy the IC Choir end of term concert. Five minutes before it began, however, I was approached by a member of the choir, with details of my mission for the evening. Before I knew it I had agreed to write this review, giving no regard to my own personal safety. I'm not generally a fan of music critics, since I believe music is a very personal experience, but given the extensive bribes offered I thought I'd give it a try. Shortly afterwards I encountered a mysterious long-blonde-haired stranger (who I later discovered to be called Alex) and persuaded him to assist me with my mission. What follows is our attempt to give a fair review of the evening.
The choir, conducted by Colin Durrant, offered a 20th century programme of music, involving a variety of accompanying ensembles and two solo vocalists. The first piece was Five Mystical Songs (1911) by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It had a strong beginning and involved interesting interplay between the choir, string section and the soloist Robert Presley. The soloist brought much character and expression to the music, however his vibrato may have been a little extreme for some tastes.
There was some excellent playing by the wind section and the percussion provided well-balanced support. Whether a property of the music or the performance, it seemed that there was not much contrast between the first four songs, and although the choir sang very well it was difficult at times to make out the words. The fifth song on the other hand, provided a stark contrast with the others; it was exciting throughout, with a tense build up from the start and a magnificent ending.
There was a new arrangement of musicians for the second piece, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (1930). The string section was smaller and they were joined by more brass players and two pianists. The style of the music was more angular with harsher harmonies, although still less so than one might expect of this composer.
The first movement set up the church-like atmosphere by using many of the scales present in early religious music. It incorporated some exciting build-ups, both to some strong trumpet playing and to several solo woodwind lines. There was good use of dynamics from the choir but at times they seemed to have difficulty in penetrating the brass players.
The second movement, described by Stravinsky as "an upside-down pyramid of fugues", began with a single oboe, which was joined gradually by other instruments. Although at times it felt that the choir and orchestra could have been better integrated, there were some genuinely beautiful moments from both.
There was a strong beginning to the third movement, which set the sombre tone of the rest of the piece, cleverly juxtaposed with the joyous text of the psalm. The two pianos provided rumbling undertones to the movement, along with the lower brass and percussion. There were some subtle entries by the choir's lower parts, and their overlapping melodies were beautifully expressed. The climaxes could perhaps have been more intense and the repeated melodies could have benefited from a greater variety of phrasing, but the performance was generally very good. The high horn playing was particularly well executed, and the lower strings and brass provided a threatening underlying pulse for much of the movement.
The final offering from the choir was Poulenc's Gloria (1959) for which the orchestra grew once more to its full size. There was a bright and confident start to the first movement which contained some beautifully rich harmonies typical of Poulenc. The second movement, which began with a melody passed around in the orchestra, was more light-hearted and playful. The harmonies and pulsating backings in the string section propelled the music to its climax, although the lower choir parts could have been a little stronger here.
The third movement gave an opportunity for the soloist Rachel Nicholls to create a wonderfully darker atmosphere. The balance between the choir, orchestra and soloist was perfect and there was some impressively sensitive playing from the orchestra. After the livelier fourth movement there was a mysterious instrumental introduction to the penultimate movement. There was good contrast here between the tense solo lines, orchestral accompaniment and the atmospheric choral harmonies. The final movement had a few shaky moments and could perhaps have had a more stimulating shape, but on the whole it was well performed with brilliant musicianship all round.
The performance was well-appreciated by the audience who hopefully shared the sense of wonder that great music can bring. The IC choir are highly recommended and it is well worth sacrificing a couple of hours in the pub to listen to them.