REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on The 24, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, November 22

Conductor Sarah Latto

THE core of this wonderfully programmed concert was the sensuous, perhaps even erotic text of the Song Of Solomon.

The poem celebrates love in an invitational courtship: two lovers singing to each other, desiring each other. They are in harmony in a God-free narrative that celebrates humanity.

This was particularly striking in Raffaella Aleotti’s setting of Ergo flos campi where the two lovers take the form of two unequal choirs. The energetic antiphonal exchanges were beautifully delivered by the singers.

The24’s concert opened with Flemish composer Clemens non Papa’s setting of the same text. This was a refined, controlled performance where the weaving of the seven-part setting was delightful. The balance was impeccably judged.

I was going to mention the striking high versus low setting of the ‘lily between thorns’, but as it was highlighted in the programme notes I’ve decided not to bother. I really enjoyed the ebb and flow of Hildegard of Bingen’s Flos Campi. The musical experience was undoubtedly spiritual.

James MacMillan’s setting of Robert Burns’ The Gallant Weaver was a secular musical match made in heaven. The work is brimming with the distinctive influence of Scottish folk music – the rich ornamental inflections or decoration was delightfully executed, as well as Gaelic Psalmody.

The overall effect was generally peaceful; the voicing was inspired with triple soprano divisions and gentle hanging dissonances that were exquisite. The only issue I had was the exposed bass and tenor setting of the words ‘the gallant weaver’, which jarred. Sir James, I suspect, not the choir.

The 24: “Radiating warmth and joy”

I personally find Morrissey a charmless, narcissistic individual, but there is no doubting his ability as a songwriter and performer. I really like The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (written by him and guitarist Johnny Marr), and I found this arrangement by Sarah Latto and the performance itself quite sublime. It was so touching, tender and respectful.

There is much to admire in John Barber’s Song Of Songs (commissioned by The Sixteen); the intricate weaving of the musical lines, lovely ornamentation and music that rhythmically danced. But I failed to engage with the work. Not even the funky ostinato of Love Is As Strong As Death or the splendid singing in By Night could revitalise that movement’s blandness.

Unlike Judith Weir’s Vertue; a very fine performance of a very fine work. Weir’s music always shines brightly, and this was no exception. Alex Kyle made a guest appearance to conduct Schütz’ Ego Dormio; the direction was assured and the performance highly rewarding.

Kerry Andrew’s CoMa Blues was a welcome change of musical gear. The composer has forged her own clearly distinctive voice, and this short theatrical performance was spot-on.

One of the concert highlights was Victoria’s Trahe Me Post Te. It is such a delight to immerse oneself into this velvety chocolatey sound world of absolute luxury. Especially when the performance, under the inspirational direction of conductor Sarah Latto, is as polished as this.

The programme concluded with Philip Glass’s Quand Les Hommes Vivront d’Amour. This attractive work is a hymn to universal love and the responsibility that goes with it, a somewhat timely message needed right here and right now.

It had all the hallmarks of Glass’s radical, and it is indeed radical, style: effective, almost hypnotically driven motor rhythms, repetitive patterns, breathing dynamic phrasing. The performance radiated warmth and joy, a great way to sign off, to say goodnight.

Review by Steve Crowther

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Gould Piano Trio, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, October 19

Gould Piano Trio: Lucy Gould, Richard Lester and Benjamin Frith, right

NOT many ensembles undertake Tchaikovsky’s only piano trio. Its wide-ranging scope and the difficulties it presents, particularly to a pianist, put it outside many groups’ field of vision.

The Goulds, however, are not easily intimidated. They have recorded it, and preceded it here with Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn, Felix’s elder sister) and our own Judith Weir.

Tchaikovsky was pretty cut up by the death of his great friend Nikolai Rubinstein, the pianist who co-founded what became the Moscow Conservatory and also premiered Balakirev’s notorious Islamey.

After a summer of sorrow, he wrote his only piano trio over the Christmas period 1881-2, To The Memory Of A Great Artist. It reflects both the composer’s grief and the personality and prowess of Rubinstein.

The Gould’s success with the piece, played after the interval, depended to a great extent on the supreme control of its pianist, Benjamin Frith. His extremely rapid arpeggios in the opening movement, for example, were tastefully suppressed, so that balance with the strings was never under threat, and he kept his greatest intensity for the big climax after the central Adagio of this huge movement, from which the ensemble subsided gracefully.

The theme and 12 variations of the second movement, some of which are quite short, represent Rubinstein’s mercurial charm and incidents in his life, although Tchaikovsky is not specific about the details. So they require a chameleon-like response from the players. The Goulds were more than equal to the task, flashing between moods as to the manner born.

After the early repetitions of the folksong-style theme – sweetly eloquent in Lucy Gould’s violin, richly autumnal in Richard Lester’s cello – the two strings combined in tasty duet before Frith brilliantly evoked a musical box in Variation 6.

The succeeding waltz was sheer delight, while the Fugue was notable for the clarity of its individual voices. Frith really came into his own in the mazurka, where he evoked Chopin. The five-minute cut authorised by Tchaikovsky made the final variation and coda much more persuasive than if given complete.

Although going hell for leather, the players remained keenly aware of each other’s roles, while the closing funeral march, echoing the very opening of the work, was a tear-jerker. The work had sounded far better than this listener had thought possible. Indeed, I bought the disc.

Fanny Mendelssohn has only in recent years begun to be recognised for the superb composer she was, having languished far too long in her brother’s shadow. Her Piano Trio in D minor was written in 1846, the year before her death, although not published till 1850. So she never heard it, in public at least.

The work opened the evening. At once it was clear that the players were listening and responding to each other in the pleasing Allegro, and there was an equally charming lightness of touch in the gentle Andante. The 3rd movement, Lied, with its piano prologue, reached a surprisingly emphatic climax. In the finale, the Goulds again allowed the music to speak for itself – not as easy as it sounds – and this time its climax was beautifully prepared.

Judith Weir’s Trio – the first of two so far – dates from 1998 and is a beguiling piece. Although not programmatic, it is inspired by locations. The Venice of Schubert’s solo song Gondelfahrer (Barcarole) lies behind its opening, and it was easy to sense the bells of St Mark’s and the lights twinkling on the water, although the gondolier seemed to be making heavy weather of his paddling.

Scurrying strings with piano interjections marked the opening of the scherzo, with fiercer, lower timbres in its more accented trio, the two eventually coming into collision like satellites swerving off course.

African energies had been the inspiration here. Darting melodic snippets, looking for an alliance, resulted from her vision of deserted Hebridean beaches in the finale. This is spacious writing, gloriously uncluttered, and the Goulds revelled in it: music to hear and hear again, especially when played with such love.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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 The Elysian Singers, Late Music, St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York, November 6

The Elysian Singers: “Intelligent programme linked settings by different composers of the same or similar texts”

ALTHOUGH unable to welcome back Late Music last month due to an unfortunate clash, I do so now with open arms.

Steve Crowther has had to work miracles to keep Late Music afloat and bring it back into action, and he will doubtless feel amply rewarded by the appearance of the London-based Elysian Singers and the excellent turnout they elicited.

Their intelligent programme, directed by Sam Laughton, linked settings by different composers of the same or similar texts. The result stretched back as far as the 13th century, but was brought right up to date with three new commissions.

Part of Psalm 95, taken from Rachmaninov’s Russian orthodox treatment of the All-Night Vigil, inspired Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s effective Bogoroditse Devo (Rejoice, O Virgin), which was essentially tonal and included a gently rolling alto line underpinning a soprano melody. Both were sung in Russian.

The anonymous mediaeval setting of Edi Beo Thu, Hevene Quene (Blessed Are You, Queen Of Heaven) was picked up in Kerry Andrew’s setting, which she additionally framed with the words ‘O virgo splendens’. Her spare harmonies, although unmistakeably modern, reflected the early setting’s approach. The choir treated its triplet figures smoothly.

There were echoes of the past, too, in the next piece. Tom Armstrong’s setting of Emily Brontë’s poem No Coward Soul Is Mine, here enjoying its premiere, uses antiphons from Vespers for Whit Sunday, so that the text emerges in striking unisons, thereby gaining emphasis, an extraordinarily powerful effect.

Brontë enjoyed a strong Christian faith, fearless about death; Armstrong clearly senses this. He uses techniques of imitation and overlapping lines, sometimes giving the plainsong slow treatment in the men’s voices with contrasting momentum in soprano and alto lines. The Elysians were especially persuasive here.

Thea Musgrave’s witty juxtaposition of poems by Herrick and Edwin Morgan with the anonymous I Saw A Peacock With A Fiery Tail, in her imaginative journey On The Underground (Set 2), made a pleasingly comic interlude, the reprise of Herrick’s Dreams making a rueful postlude to the perky staccato of the other poems.

The choir was equally alive to Britten’s word-setting in his Five Flower Songs, which have deservedly become choral staples over the past 70 years.

There were two further premieres after the interval. David Power’s minimalist setting of the opening words of St John’s gospel, The Transfiguration, was cleverly built around an insistent refrain, ‘God spoke, light shone’. It does not deal directly with the transfiguration story, but suggests light at the end of any tunnel of trouble – as in present times. Those four words certainly shone through, often at the top of the spectrum.

The story of the Sirens’ search for Proserpine, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, was the inspiration for David Lancaster’s Feathers, since Demeter gave them wings for the task. Opening with a very high soprano solo, suggesting soaring flight, its slow, rhythmless progress was beautifully sustained by the choir.

An interesting setting by Ivor Gurney of a Robert Bridges poem on John Milton was contrasted with a deeply elegiac prayer, Requiem, by John Duggan to words of Gurney, which was much the more touching of the two.

There was distinguished company in a James MacMillan folksong and Judith Weir’s My Guardian Angel, which involved the audience in a threefold Alleluia. And it was impossible to suppress a smile at the creamy Victorian harmonies of Bantock’s response to ‘My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose’, lovingly caressed by this superb group.

Review by Martin Dreyer

York Late Music continues with two events on December 4; full details at