Magnificat – Bach / Vivaldi

St Peter ad Vincula, Coggeshall
18th January 2020

Magnificent Magnificat

The Magnificat, the song of the Blessed Virgin Mary, lies at the heart of most traditions of Christian worship – Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant – and is commonly said or sung at daily evening services. Unsurprisingly, it has been set to music countless times, and on church festivals it has often drawn forth extended, splendidly elaborate settings. Two of the finest, those by Bach and Vivaldi, were the centre-pieces of the concert given by Colchester Chamber Choir in St Peter ad Vincula on January 18th to celebrate the choir’s tenth anniversary.

It was a fitting celebration of a decade of achievement, for the music of Bach constitutes one of the peaks of European music and offers rewards and challenges in equal measure. Bach often writes for voices as if they were instruments, and this requires considerable technique and vocal agility with clear, bright tone-colours and articulation. Above all, it needs the guiding hand of a Director who has a vision beyond the purely technical, to penetrate to the spiritual heart of the music and so inspire the singers. Roderick Earle, the choir’s conductor, is a singer and vocal coach at the highest levels of the profession and brings this experience to bear on his work with the choir. As a result, one would have to go to the professional choirs in London, Oxford or Cambridge to hear significantly better performances than this.

There were other factors that lifted this concert out of the ordinary. While it is not unusual for a choir to use some of its members as soloists, it is certainly uncommon for them all to be of such high quality and to work so well together in ensembles. This was, almost certainly, Bach’s own practice in Leipzig, and indeed his chorus may sometimes have consisted of no more than the soloists singing together. Another practice that lent authenticity to this concert was the inclusion of additional texts within those of the liturgy which were applicable to the season. Hence Bach’s Magnificat was adorned with interpolations of Vom Himmel Hoch (a German Christmas carol), an additional Gloria in excelsis Deo and other rarely heard short pieces, thus aligning it more closely to the Christmas season. Additionally, the concert started with a free-standing setting of the Gloria that Bach was to incorporate a few years later in his Mass in B minor. Nested within this feast of Bach was the Magnificat setting by Vivaldi, which formed a stimulating contrast. The music of this fiery, red-headed priest from Venice is simpler in conception than Bach’s and bolder in its drama; here again the choir projected the music’s character with verve and precision.

All the works in the programme required instrumental accompaniment. This was provided by an ensemble of seventeen players using eighteenth-century style instruments, played with appropriate period techniques. All were young, some of them postgraduate students, specialists in so-called early music. They brought extra vitality to the performance, and showed, incidentally, that early music is still a vigorous growth area in contemporary culture.

It is this sort of enterprising approach, as well as sheer technical and interpretative acumen, that makes the Colchester Chamber Choir one of the outstanding musical institutions in the East of England. No wonder tickets for their concerts are in such demand and that some 400 people filled St Peter’s that evening. We have an ideal venue, both visually and aurally, and an efficient, hard-working concert team who offer a warm welcome and every assistance to those who perform here. Even before you read this, Colchester Chamber Choir will have already returned here for another, quite different concert.

Michael Frith, Organist, St Peter ad Vincula

Rachmaninoff Vespers

St Peter ad Vincula, Coggeshall
12th January 2019

‘I thank thee, Lord’: Russia comes to Coggeshall

The church is in darkness apart from the subdued light from strategically placed candles; there is the residual scent of incense in the air; the deep tolling of a great bell booms out, joined by the tintinnabulation of smaller bells; a capacity audience waits expectantly. The setting was thus prepared for a remarkable performance in St Peter’s on the evening of January 12th: Colchester Chamber Choir was to present the Russian Orthodox Night Vigil in Rachmaninov’s remarkable music.

Performances of this work are not common, for it makes great demands on even the very best choirs. On the evidence, this Colchester-based choir is one of the very best. Indeed, to hear a better performance one would have to go to one of the top London professional choirs, or to one of the finest college choirs in Oxford or Cambridge. The work requires singers who, unaccompanied, can maintain the pitch through an hour’s music; it demands the utmost unanimity in ensemble, balance and tuning, through a wide range of volume and vocal colours; and, above all, enormous concentration from every singer. On every count the choir was superb, a tribute to their distinguished director, Roderick Earle, whose musical and spiritual insights made this interpretation much more than a mere exhibition of choral technique.

For it was a truly spiritual experience. Although Rachmaninov, who was not in any conventional sense a churchman, took advice when composing it (in 1915) from a leading authority on the musical requirements of the Russian liturgy, he overstepped the very rigid boundaries of what was considered appropriate in the way of emotional expression, thus severely limiting the possibilities for genuine liturgical performance. This may seem surprising to a western audience to whom this music may seem the very essence of Holy Russia, its soul deep in the soil of the Motherland. The composer left Russia soon after the Revolution for the United States, never to return. But toward the end of his very last work, the Symphonic Dances for orchestra written in 1940, he quoted at length an Alleluia theme from the Vigil setting which alternates in a sort of life-and-death struggle with the Dies Irae funeral chant. On the final page he wrote ‘I thank thee, Lord’, as if he had finally come to believe in the triumph of life over death and the victory of the Resurrection. Was this only the nostalgia of an exile for his native land, or does it perhaps suggest something of a religious conversion?

We should beware of thinking of a serious musical concert as little more than a superior form of entertainment, for it can afford a religious experience every bit as valid and even life-changing as a church service. There can have been few agnostics or atheists present in St Peter’s that night who did not experience something of the eternal and transcendent through Rachmaninov’s music, whether or not they perceived it as anything to do with their conception of what the Church customarily offers. We are thankful that in our church building we have a venue where such things are possible; and we should be profoundly grateful to the Colchester Chamber Choir for giving us this opportunity to discover a fresh vision of the Eternal.

Michael Frith, Organist, St Peter ad Vincula

O Sacrum Convivium

Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Norwich 
17 November 2012
A Welcome Return for this Choir.
Welcome back in Norwich once again, the 30 members of the Colchester Chamber Choir, under their conductor Roderick Earle, presented a programme of modern French sacred pieces that were artistically satisfying and spiritually moving.
Four motes by Maurice Duruflé were an excellent choice for starting. Modern but echoing traditional Catholic chant, each took just one theme and brought out the meaning of its Latin text.
Unity and concentration also added force to Poulenc’s powerful interpretation of passages suitable for Good Friday.
With Kriss Thomsett adding the organ accompaniment, the sustained line of Fauré’s setting of Jena Racine’s Canticle breathed serenity.  So did Vivet’s Pie Jesu and Messiaen’s mediatation on the eucharist.
Hilary Sellers was the clear soprano soloist in Pierre Villette’s Hymn to the Virgin and time and again the basses contributed telling deep notes where required.
Varying tone for the expression of a range of moods, the choir generally sang without straining, with its different sections balanced and blending well.
Only Dupre’s Psalm 117, plainly intended as a rousing finale, seemed too steep a vocal challenge.
Christopher Smith, Eastern Daily Press,  November 2012

Baroque to Bruckner

Baroque to Bruckner: Ceremonial Music for Choir and Brass. St Teresa’s Church, Colchester
Essex County Standard 24th June 2011
Colchester Chamber Choir showed its greatness with perfectly balanced sound, total musical commitment and faithful interpretation of a variety of styles.
Their programme cleverly compared and contrasted works from the Baroque with Bruckner’s 19th century pieces, and the added dimension of brass instrumentalists from the Royal College of Music provided a variety of textures to enhance the vocal drama.
Purcell’s fervent and well-sustained Funeral Sentences were exquisite. Bruckner’s Ecce Sacerdos was mighty in its declamation, and the strategic scattering of voices and instruments around the church provided a delightful echo effect from the small choir in Schutz’s Jauchzet. It also replicated the authentic surround-sound experience of Gabrieli’s O Magnum Mysterium.
The enthusiastic audience was rewarded with an encore, Bruckner’s Locus Iste, bringing the evening to a sublime close.
Jackie Wallace