Song of the Skull

Obscurity for obscurity’s sake spoiled sparkling potential for JOHN CLAPHAM

choral music crux fidelis granta group johns chapel kodaly lotti song skull

St. John’s Chapel, Tuesday 28th February, £2/£6


Considering the Granta Group’s slogan is ‘New ways with choral traditions’, being faced with a choir of 17 singing sacred choral repertoire in St. John’s College Chapel was, at first, a tad puzzling. Nevertheless, there were some fine singers on show singing music that is not usually covered by the standard music lists across Cambridge.

The programme began with Antonio Lotti’s ‘Crucifixus’ for six voices. The choir produced an engaging, vibrant, full tone from the outset. Unfortunately, the sopranos, despite good individual voices, did not blend particularly well with the rich lower voices and seemed to sit on top of the texture. As a result, the lapses in tuning from the sopranos were more noticeable. Furthermore, the rich sound that was produced seemed to come slightly at the expense of expressiveness and there was too much effort in the sound, which needed to be more effortless for the early music. Lotti’s ten voice ‘Crucifixus’ setting was slightly less successful than the six voice setting. As it wasn’t very together, the messy texture revealed the large number of parts.

Zoltan Kodaly’s ‘Pange Lingua’ gave the choir more of a chance to vocally expand into the music. However, by the time the long organ introduction had finished (played flawlessly by John Challenger) I was losing interest in the music and needed awakening for the choir’s entry.

The premiere of Misha Mullov-Abbado’s work was largely successful with only a few pitch problems in what was a very difficult piece to perform. More importantly, the group was able to give meaning to the music as opposed to just ‘singing the notes’, which was vital for the success of such an aurally challenging piece.

Again, the lower voices especially were able to shine in Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Crux Fidelis’ with exhilarating sounds in the louder sections of the work.

The second half of the concert consisted of Liszt’s ‘Via Crucis’. This was described on the programme as a ‘rarely performed masterpiece’. I could understand the first half of that description but not the second: the music itself lacked any sort of sustained interest and was very disjointed and fragmented. The chorales that punctuated the piece were a relief to the ear after bar after bar of Lisztian harmonic obscurity. They seemed almost embarrassed to be hidden amongst this swamp of meaningless experimental musings. Good solos, especially from Henry Neill, were able to salvage some interest in the music.

By the end of the concert, I felt that obscure music had been chosen largely for obscurity’s sake. It was a reminder why many of these works are not regularly performed. To do the 6 voice and 10 voice Lotti ‘Crucifixus’ settings and not the famous and more effective 8 voice setting sums up this point. But to then do the 8 voice setting as an encore completely undermined the point of not having it on the programme in the first place!

If you express a particular vision to the public audience very clearly, as this group did with their vivid posters and swanky new website, then you have to fulfill it or risk being judged strongly against it. This group clearly has lots of potential with the voices on show and there were moments of brilliance during the performance. But ultimately, I was not given what was promised.