Thursday, 25 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: A tale of two very different choirs

Today at Aldeburgh the theme was very much choral music and, save the odd harpsichord and lute, largely unaccompanied.

At Blythburgh church this afternoon the choir of Caius (pronounces keys) College Cambridge was on hand for a traditional but very pleasant programme. (They earn this review a Shameless Plugs tag since my second cousin May Robertson was singing with them, hence a potential conflict of interest in the writing of a review.)

The first half featured works by Haydn and Debussy as well as two English psalms. The choir chopped and changed around a bit too, varying from full forces down as low as trios, which provided a nice variety in sound and texture. At full force in the opening Haydn Danklied zu Gott they had a wonderful richness. However, pared down to a quartet for Der Augenblick and Alles hat seine Zeit, they were less successful because the soprano had a significantly more powerful voice than the others, slightly unbalancing the ensemble.

After the interval came a particularly nice setting by Joye, bookended with two harpsichord pieces by Bedyngham. Then the whole ensemble moved to the very back of the church to sing Durufle's Quatre motets sur des themes gregoriens. This provided another interesting shift in dynamics.

They finished up with some Britten settings, showing how much better he was a writing for a whole choir than setting songs for just one person: we got Chorale after an Old French Carol and Five Flower Songs, op.47. These were nicely coloured but it would've been nice to have the texts as the multi-part nature meant it wasn't always possible to hear all the words (though they did try their best by giving us the Ballad of Green Broom again as an encore).

They were ably directed by Geoffrey Webber, with harpsichord accompaniment provided by David Ballantyne and Matthew Fletcher. Some of these singers will be making their way up to Edinburgh this August to do the Magic Flute at the Fringe. (However, having just checked and discovered the venue is located seven miles out of Edinburgh, and remembering I no longer own a car, I'm wondering if my promise to attend was a little rash.)


In the evening it was over to the Maltings for some very different choral work: the Ensemble Basiani of Georgia (playing to a sold out hall). It was certainly very impressive as the twelve men took to the stage in their traditional dress, complete with daggers. It's also true that they're a talented group and produced some very nice and interesting (and sometimes strongly contrasting) sounds in their multipart harmonies. And yet, it was all much of a muchness. Twenty minutes would have been very nice, and a good exposure to something a little different. An hour and a half with, bafflingly, no interval, was just far too much (and given each song lasting a few minutes pretty well stood by itself, there was no logical justification to this). True, every now and again they would sing something a bit different, but there wasn't enough of that to justify the length. As ever, you can have too much of a good thing, and in this case we did by some margin.

Having said that, in the interests of fairness, I should stress that they were cheered loudly and widely and got comfortably the warmest reception of anything I've been at this festival. True, this isn't as puzzling to me as when the crowds cheer the past-it Deborah Voigt, at least I can appreciate this ensemble as singers, I just can't understand why the crowd seemed to still want more.

Tomorrow what promises to be one of the highlights of the festival as the Mahler Chamber Orchestra roll into town.

2 comments:

  1. I have to disagree with the review of Ensemble Basiani, in that it was stated to be much of a muchness. The diversity of the songs was clear and distinct, from religious songs to traditional folk. There was a good mix of everything, from loud, powerful to soft, haunting sounds. The first of their softer songs brought tears to my eyes, and that of my partner, surprisingly! I hope they come back - they were the highlight of the festival for me.

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  2. As I hope I made clear, we were very much in the minority (though not completely - I did see someone walk out).

    I'd also say that since I wasn't counting along, I was unable to tell where the folk songs stopped and the religious songs began.

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