Spitalfields Music: Songs from Northern Lands

Spitalfields Music: Songs from Northern Lands
Choir of Royal Holloway, Rupert Gough director
Christ Church Spitalfields. 11 December 2015

Arvo Pärt: Magnificat; Rihards Dubra: A child’s prayer; Vytautas Miškinis: Oi šala, šala; Bo Hansson: Lighten mine eyes; Ēriks Ešenvalds: Long Road, Ola Gjeilo: Northern lights; Einojuhani Rautavaara: Vespers from Vigilia.

Arvo Pärt provided a link between the earlier B’Rock/Julia Doyle concert and the later evening programme of a capella ‘Songs from the Northern Lands’ given by the Choir of Royal Holloway College. They opened with Pärt’s mesmerising Magnificat, the verse sections evolving around a high and long-held soprano note, and contrasting with fuller-textured passages. A similar drone note was at the core of Rihards Dubra’s ‘A child’s prayer’, again with a soprano solo. Vytautas Miškinis’s Oi šala, šala uses the ‘sh’ sound of ‘šala’ to invoke the sense of shivering in the frost. It is performed with three remote female voices (with noisy shoes!) echoing each other, a soprano solo and an almost inaudible little bell that reinforced the end of phrases.

Moving from the Baltic States to Scandanavia, we then heard Bo Hansson’s ‘Lighten mine eyes’, another song that is built around a drone voice. Hansson is something of a favourite with the royal Holloway choir, and this well-structured compositional essay perhaps explains why. A repetitive sequence based on descending notes was later reversed under a later text with rising notes, as the low drone was swapped by a high one. Ēriks Ešenvalds’s ‘Long Road’ was prefaced by an impressively efficient movement of the choir into two separate groups. Straightforward harmonies and an almost chorale-like structure added to the simplicity of the piece, which was enlivened by sleigh bells, recorders and what sounded like wind chimes. Yet again, there was a solo soprano voice hovering over the other vocal lines. This, and the use of drones,  seems to be something of a thing amongst present day Northern composers – amongst whoever chose this programme.

Simple, but lush, harmonies were also a feature of Ola Gjeilo’s ‘Northern lights’, as was yet another chant-like incantation acting as a drone, to the extent of hanging on for a while at the end. A drone also started the final section, with extracts from the ‘All-night Vigil in Memory of St John the Baptist’ by Einojuhani Rautavaara. The extracts that we heard included the ‘Psalm of Invocation’ which seems to have been an extract of an extract as it included the descending glissandi mentioned in the programme notes, but certainly did not include the promised text describing the ‘lust surrounding John the Baptist’s gruesome execution’. The ‘Evening Hymn’ was in a gentle rocking motion, and featured some spectacularly low bass notes.

This was an interesting programme of largely unfamiliar music – just the thing that Spitalfields Music excels in. Although there was certainly contrast between the pieces, I would have preferred rather less of the musical motifs (drones, etc) that featured in many of the pieces. Surprisingly, none of the soloists were individually named in the programme – nor, even more surprisingly, were they acknowledged by the conductor at the end of the concert. They deserve a mention, so I managed to find the names the two most prominent ones. The principal soprano soloist was Victoria Meteyard, displaying a beautifully clear and steady tone in the many high-pitched drones she was given, as well as the more challenging vocal lines. Phoebe Kirrage also impressed in a couple of solos. In fact, all the singers were good, both individually and collectively. Students choirs like this are likely to include several members who have had less than a term of rehearsals. The standard always impresses me.

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