REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Carols By Candlelight, Chapter House Choir, York Minster, December 15

Chapter House Choir musical director Benjamin Morris

WITHDRAWAL symptoms were widespread last year when Carols By Candlelight succumbed to Covid. For it has become a tradition without which no York Yuletide is complete.

This year it was back with a vengeance, transplanted from the Chapter House to the Nave of the Minster to allow a larger audience. Even if the candles did not flicker quite so intimately, the move was a resounding success: the building’s wide-open spaces were encouraged to co-operate.

Musical director Benjamin Morris had chosen a typically eclectic programme. Admirably, more than half of the 18 choral pieces were either composed or arranged by living musicians. In addition to the main choir, we enjoyed the Chapter House Youth Choir, conducted by Charlie Gowers-Smith, the traditional Handbell Ringers and three organ interludes from Asher Oliver.

The combined choirs opened with Andrew Carter’s tasteful arrangement of the Advent plainsong hymn, Veni Emmanuel, sung in procession. The Advent responsory that followed featured a beautifully crystalline soprano soloist (unnamed). Muscular contrasts came with Joubert’s Torches and in the crisp syncopation of Matthias’s arrangement of Sir Christèmas, the oldest carol here and reaching back to the 15th century.

At the other end of the spectrum, we had Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir’s setting of William Blake’s My Guardian Angel, with its cleverly repeating Alleluia, sung by the combined choirs. Even more atmospheric was Holst’s In The Bleak Midwinter, with the alternating choirs widely spaced. The sweet harmonies of Sally Beamish’s In The Stillness stood up well alongside Warlock’s tasty Bethlehem Down.

The choir’s final group was the best of all. After tenderly caressing The Shepherds’ Farewell, from Berlioz’s ‘L’enfance du Christ’, there was a lovely calm in Nicola LeFanu’s Saint Ita’s Lullaby and much feeling in Rutter’s melodious Candlelight Carol. We finished as we began, with founder-director Andrew Carter’s Make We Merry, spirited and heart-warming.

Along the way, the Handbell Ringers brought their mystifying skills to bear on four numbers, with Carter’s arrangement of Good King Wenceslas and John Hastie’s of We Wish You A Merry Christmas drawing especially warm applause.

The Youth Choir launched into the Vaughan Williams arrangement of the Yorkshire Wassail with special vigour. Oliver’s three contributions were gracefully restrained – we might have had a little more in the way of fireworks – although he had to do battle with a reed stop on the newly-restored organ speaking rather less than cleanly.

At ten minutes less than two hours despite no interval, the concert might have been a touch shorter for audience comfort in the chill, but it was wonderfully energising to have this great tradition back where it belonged.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Next performance by Chapter House Choir: Festival of Carols, St Michael-le-Belfrey, York, December 18, 7.30pm.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Chapter House Choir, York Minster Nave, 13/11/21

Composer Lillie Harris: “Commissioned piece will stand alone well as an introit or anthem”

ON the eve of Remembrance Sunday, there could be no more perfect choice of repertory than A German Requiem, Brahms’ non-liturgical memorial to the dead. It was given in the original German to the composer’s own piano-duet version, alongside a short unaccompanied new work commissioned from Lillie Harris.

Like so many performers during lockdown, Chapter House Choir under Benjamin Morris has struggled to stay together and survive. So this was a test of its mettle, as well as being the first post-lockdown ticketed musical event at York Minster itself.

While it is true that Brahms intended a “human” requiem, he did not mean a humanist one, as implied by the programme note. The two words are not interchangeable. He selected exclusively biblical texts for his work – as did Miss Harris, who used only texts selected by Brahms, understandably but also courageously, given that comparisons were bound to be made between old and new.

Her motet, entitled Comfort, began with a prolonged hum incorporating a three-note motif. At first this seemed to be the link between the five brief sections of text. But like the grass withering, it faded and the tonality became more diffuse, in a manner reminiscent of Eric Whitacre, with a slight loss of focus.

Alex Ashworth. “Forthright at the top of his range”. Picture: Debbie Scanlan

The ending – “so will I comfort you” – resolved beautifully, speaking of a technique capable of offering more challenges than were on offer here. My feeling is that this piece will stand alone well as an introit or anthem but will tend to be overshadowed in the company of a whole requiem, like a tugboat sheltering beside an ocean liner, largely overlooked.

Commercial nous was what drove Brahms to write this four-hands at one piano version of his Requiem, which was quickly demanded after the success of the orchestral original. It makes for a more intimate atmosphere but should not be regarded as a complete replacement.

A smooth line was immediately apparent in the choir, with sopranos pinging their high notes satisfyingly. In ‘For all flesh is as grass’, each return of the opening unison was progressively firmer and the closing fugato appeared in a crisp staccato.

Soprano Susan Young: “Maternal, consolatory tone”

In the first of his two contributions, baritone Alex Ashworth was forthright at the top of his range while sustaining an impressive legato. The mood-change at “the souls of the righteous” was almost jaunty; no reason why not, given Brahms’ positive attitude and keenness to avoid prolonged lugubriousness.

It was in “How lovely are thy dwellings” that it became clear that the pianists, Eleanor Kornas and Polly Sharpe, who were otherwise unfailingly tasteful, needed to come to the fore at moments when the choir was not involved rather than remain in the background. They were not, it should be added, blessed with a piano in ideal shape: it sounded particularly tinny in the upper reaches.

The maternal, consolatory tone that soprano Susan Young found for “You now therefore have sorrow”, suggesting that a silver lining lay round the corner, was just about ideal. She polished it off with a beautifully controlled piano that distilled the very essence of Isaiah’s words of comfort.

If the last trump fell slightly short of sending shivers down the spine and the fugue that followed it lacked clarity because individual entries were not given enough prominence, there was considerable compensation in the finale, ‘Blessed are the dead’, which was clean, confident and comforting. The Chapter House Choir is back and in fine fettle.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Chapter House Choir to perform Brahms’s German Requiem and Lillie Harris world premiere at Saturday’s York Minster concert

Baritone Alex Ashworth: Soloist for Brahms’s Ein Deutsches. Picture: Debbie Scanlan

THE Chapter House Choir performs Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem at York Minster on Saturday night.

This 7.30pm concert is a rare opportunity to hear Brahms’s own arrangement written for piano duet (the ‘London version’ premiered in 1873), revealing the work in a new light: more intimate and transparent, exposing a wider variety of choral timbres and textures.

Baritone Alex Ashworth, who also teaches singing at the Royal Academy of Music, joins soprano Susan Young, who has sung notable roles at English National Opera and Opera Holland Park, to perform the Brahms work alongside pianists Eleanor Kornas and Polly Sharpe.

Soprano Susan Young

“Hearing the Chapter House Choir is never just about the music; it’s about the whole experience,” says choir publicist Richard Long. “That’s why this performance of Brahms’s German Requiem promises to be a remarkable concert, combining one of the best-loved choral works of all time with the magical ambience of York Minster, four outstanding soloists – and a world premiere too.”

Musical director Benjamin Morris, York Minster’s assistant director of music, says: “The opportunity to explore this piece in its more intimate version for piano with four hands accompaniment has been really exciting for all of us.

“Together with the unique acoustics and incredibly grand architecture of York Minster’s Nave, this will offer an exhilarating and emotional experience of the German Requiem.”

Chapter House Choir musical director Benjamin Morris

The world premiere will be Comfort by award-winning emerging composer Lillie Harris, specially commissioned for Saturday’s concert.

Lillie says: “Reflecting the strong themes in Ein Deutsches Requiem of love, loss, acceptance, and human mortality, I have sought to bring these ideas together in Comfort: music to create an embrace of warmth, love and understanding, that acknowledges the sadness of loss but also celebrates the joy and memories in a life well lived, and that brings voices together to express support and comfort.”

This weekend’s concert will be dedicated to the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tickets can booked on 01904 557200 or at yorkminster.org.

Composer Lillie Harris: Commission for Chapter House Choir

Who is composer Lillie Harris?

LILLIE graduated from the Royal College of Music in 2016, studying composition with Haris Kittos and winning the Elgar Memorial prize for her final portfolio.

Musical from a young age, her interest in composing grew out of learning instruments, a flair for languages and a love of creative writing. Narrative ideas and complex emotions are often a core element in her compositions, and perhaps explain her increasing interest in choral music.

Her pieces have been workshopped and performed by ensembles such as York’s Ebor Singers, the Assembly Project, Florilegium and Ensemble Recherche, and she has participated in young composer schemes with Psappha, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, National Youth Choir of Great Britain and London Symphony Orchestra, who commissioned her to write new pieces for its Elmer’s Walk Under-5s concert.

In 2017, she was awarded the Tenso Young Composers Award for her song cycle setting poems by August Stramm; in 2019, she was the joint-winner of Echo Choir’s composition competition for her setting of an Alice Oswold poem; in 2020, two choral works written on the NYCGB’s Young Composer Scheme were released on NMC Recordings.