Review: CUMS 1 and CUMS Chorus

JOE CONWAY : ‘It was obvious that the performers were whole-heartedly responding to Sir Roger Norrington’s approach, raising their game, and generally giving everything they’d got.’

Blessed Are They That Mourn Camerata Salzburg King's Sir Roger Norrington

12th June 8pm at King's College Chapel. £32/£27/£17/£5

Sir Roger Norrington must have felt that Saturday night's concert at King's was a bit like returning home. For it was in Cambridge that his conducting career began when he formed an orchestra called CUCO more decades ago than it's quite polite to recall!

Since his undergraduate days at Clare Sir Roger has conducted the most prestigious orchestras in Europe and America – including the Vienna and Berlin Phils, the Concertgebouw, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Philadelphia. He's also had enduring relationships with the London Classical Players, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony, and the Camerata Salzburg. The theme common to all parts of his distinguished career has been performing classical repertoire as authentically as possible, taking into account historical precept and precedent – sometimes with extraordinary and unexpected results.

As Sir Roger walked down the long aisle of King's Antechapel at the start of this concert many people in the capacity audience will have wondered how this kind of international professional background would gel with conducting the CUMS 1 Orchestra and Chorus, spread out in ranks in front of the great wooden screen. Sir Roger sits to conduct so we had to wait a moment longer to find out. A clear unfussy beat – left arm sometimes raised on high to inspire a more intense sound, and right arm ditto to bring in players – and the performance of Haydn's Symphony No 49 was underway.

From the first rich string chords it was obvious that this was going to be a gorgeous performance of a glorious work. It was also obvious that the performers were whole-heartedly responding to Sir Roger's approach, raising their game, and generally giving everything they'd got. Very slow speeds in the first and third movements were balanced by sizzling playing in the Allegro and Presto. In accordance with 18th century practice there was very little vibrato, but phrasing, dynamics, and changing levels of intensity were integral to the performance.

To make sure this kind of detail was in place, a lot of background work will have been delegated to Natasha Sachsenmeier, the pro-active leader of CUMS 1. She told me later that she'd got on extremely well with Sir Roger, in fact that everyone in the orchestra loved him! Natasha said that he'd asked the players to do some things that were new to them. But it was obvious that everything he'd suggested had worked, and that the performers had got a great deal out of the experience.

After a short break Sir Roger Norrington returned to the podium with soprano Katherine Broderick and baritone Benedict Nelson. Brilliant though the Haydn symphony had been there was a sense it which it was a bit of a curtain-raiser for the main work on the programme, Brahms' German Requiem. And when Sir Roger brought the CUMS Chorus to its feet for the first time there was a definite feeling of this-is-what-you've-all-been-waiting-for.

The touching orchestral intro over, the choir of more than a hundred voices launched into Blessed Are They That Mourn with a hushed, rounded tone that grew in volume as this sublime melody unfolded. An hour later Brahms returns to the same mood and a similar tune in Blessed Are The Dead before the music subsides into a heavenly stillness. In between come many memorable moments, including the soprano solo Ye Now Have Sorrow – sung with more vibrato than matched the rest of the performance – and the effective baritone leads Lord Let Me Know and For We Have Here. Even more striking was the beautifully balanced choral singing in How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings and, in contrast, the mighty unison All Flesh Is As The Grass – the undoubted highlight of a quite superb concert.