BBC Singers at Chester Cathedral

I Was Glad
Purcell, arranged Sandström
Hear My Prayer
The Shepheardes Calender
Maxwell Davies
Three Organ Voluntaries
Rejoice in the Lamb
Mitten wir im Leben sind, Op.23/3
Organ Concerto in B flat, Op.7/6
Jesu, meine Freude – Motet, BWV227

BBC Singers
David Hill

Stephen Farr (organ)

Reviewed by: Glyn Môn Hughes

Reviewed: 11 July, 2009
Venue: Chester Cathedral

The advent of ensembles such as the Taverner Consort or The Sixteen have helped propel British choral singing – the BBC Singers with them – to new heights of excellence. A visit from the latter is a special occasion because its members – like other top-flight ensembles – bring with them repertoire that is challenging.

From the riches of Purcell, through Mendelssohn, Bingham, Sandström and Britten they concluded with a pristine performance of Bach’s fiendish “Jesu, meine Freude”. A sprightly performance of Purcell’s anthem “I Was Glad” was marred slightly by a lack of dynamic contrast. An arrangement by Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström of Purcell’s penitential anthem “Hear My Prayer” received a profound performance, from the inward-looking pathos of Purcell’s original composition into the gentle synthesis which is Sandström’s.

Judith Bingham is a former member of BBC Singers. The approachable “The Shepheardes Calender” mixes textures as well as genres – folk-music is highly evident – and found the singers in a spirited performance. As was Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb”, drama combined with some splendidly thoughtful moments. The men were particularly powerful in Mendelssohn’s setting of “Mitten wir im Leben sind” while the unremitting nature of Bach’s demands in ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ was more than met.

Organist Stephen Farr – an excellent accompanist, particularly in the Britten – performed the introverted Three Organ Voluntaries by Peter Maxwell Davies. The first two (‘Psalm 124’ and ‘O God Abufe’) are contemplative conversations whilst the third, ‘All Sons of Adam’, was powerfully rendered. Handel’s Organ Concerto felt a little wooden, almost mechanical, though Farr used the organ registration to great effect, exploring many of the possibilities of the cathedral’s instrument.

An encore, an arrangement by Knut Nystedt of Bach’s “Komm, süßer Tod” (Come, sweetest death) was sublime. The choir was divided into three, and spaced around the cathedral’s south transept, the music proceeding in different tempos yet maintaining a spine-tingling, reverential simplicity and humanity.

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