“Song of Songs” Review

Review of the “Song of Songs” concert held at Christ Church, Malvern on 27th February, 2016

Presenting an adventurous and challenging programme – devised and directed by Piers Maxim, (Director of Music at Malvern Priory) – The Elgar Chorale, with excellent young organist Aaron King, delighted their audience with music spanning four centuries.

The unifying thread of the programme was music based on celebrating human love and opened with five motets from ” Canticum Canticorum” by Palestrina. The Chorale made a dramatic impact with nicely balanced vocal lines.and clear diction. However, there were moments which suggested a lack of familiarity with the often quite complex contrapuntal lines, but Maxim’s immaculate directing ensured secure performance. They relaxed into “Ego flos campi” by Clemens – a gentle, lyrical piece. Following this were two compositions by Thomas Tomkins, a former organist at Worcester Cathedral. “It is my well-beloved’s voice” – playfully madrigalian in style with lovely interweaving parts and “My beloved spake” – a verse anthem where soloists and choir gave an authoritative performance, sensitively accompanied by Aaron King. The transition from 17th to 20th century was cleverly engineered by the inclusion of “Cinq Vepres des Fetes” by Dupre. This comprised five plainsong antiphons sung by the gentlemen, each followed by an organ reflection, beautifully played by Piers Maxim, who found a variety of colours on this small digital organ. The Chorale clearly felt very much at home with John Ireland’s “Greater love” as this displayed confident singing with an excellent range of dynamics and superb accompaniment by King. “Beloved” by Helen Williams was a complex and challenging piece with a lovely warm Englishness to it. Written in 8 parts with tenor soloist, it was an extended setting of the text “Rise up, my love” – The Chorale gave it a committed performance. By comparison, Healy Willan’s setting of the same text was quite short, but was full of beautiful nuances. Bairstow’s lovely miniature “I sat down under his shadow” sadly, did not quite convince that they were singing it with “Great delight”! In contrast, Walton’s “Set me as a seal” displayed a feeling of tenderness and emotion. Aarn King, former Organ Scholar at Malvern Priory and now senior Organ Scholar at Hertford College, Oxford – gave a fine reading of Howells’ “Psalm Prelude no 1″. This was an assured performance and he managed to find suitable registrations to convey the mood of the piece. Four songs by Skempton appeared quite simple in conception, but were challenging both harmonically, stylistically and dynamically and they were given a moving and convincing interpretation. The final item ” My beloved spake” by Hadley, enabled The Chorale to display their hallmark – confident, dynamic, sensitive and polished singing – which was very much enjoyed by an appreciative audience.

James Morgan