Reviewing an evening of choral music with the Chanctonbury Chorus

Review by Liz Allen

I have enjoyed many concerts by the Chanctonbury Chorus over the years and have come to expect an offering of major choral works integrating a substantial choir with orchestra and soloists.

So it was intriguing to turn up at the Church of St Andrews, in Steyning, on a cold November evening for a very different kind of concert. The Chorus is currently smaller than hitherto, and on this occasion sang an ambitious and eclectic programme either with organ, or completely unaccompanied. I would imagine that much of the music – if not its composers – was new to the packed audience, and in another innovation the conductor, Siobhan Denning, introduced the works with some thoughtful notes and pointers as to what to listen out for.

Given the wide ranging and challenging range of works by renaissance, baroque and twentieth century composers this was a helpful guide through the evening – although possibly briefer introductions at the start of both halves of the concert would have
maintained more “flow” than comments piece by piece. The first half of the concert featured early (renaissance and baroque) music, combining choral works with a Bach Fugue for organ and a delightful trumpet symphonia by Stradella. The chorus were perhaps more hesitant and exposed in the opening work – Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freude which is less well known than much of his choral repertoire – though there were beautiful passages such as the Gute Nacht, where the singing gained in assurance. In
the Byrd Mass that ended this first half the smaller, chamber sound really came into its own, with the meditative, weaving form of the Mass projected with a more sustained and pure sound, especially from the sopranos.

The Byrd and the Bach are substantial works, and this first part of the evening was rewarding but demanding – both of the audience and the chorus. The second half of the concert was a collection of shorter works organised around the theme of remembrance and
loss, to mark the recent centenary of the First World War Armistice. It opened with Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia, which the choir sang with an enjoyable lightness. There was a lovely solo
from soprano Sarah Russell, who later delivered an exquisite rendering of the Geoffrey Burgon Nunc Dimittis. Works by Thomas Tallis, Arvo Part and John Rutter were interspersed
with dignified and moving readings of war poets. The musical and aesthetic experience was very accessible given the unfamiliar nature of some of the music, and works from very different periods – such as the Tallis and the Part – integrated well.

The concert closed with the audience standing to a rendering of the Last Post, by trumpeter Tim Mulkern, as the lights were dimmed in this beautiful old church. It was altogether a fascinating and varied evening and I look forward to seeing what the Chanctonbury Chorus will do next.


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