St Augustine’s Singers, Cambridge
Conductor Lucas Elkin
16 December 2023
This concert was a refreshing antidote to all the schmultzy, mass-produced junk music that’s relentless pumped out at us every December. It ranged over several centuries, took us all over Europe and included some unexpected delights.
One such was probably the most challenging, and the longest item, in the programme: Totus Tuus by Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, a Polish composer who died in 2010, requires the sort of control that only a fine chamber choir (15 in the St Augustine’s Singers on this occasion) directed with real attention to detail, could bring off. It includes some scarily unpredictable close harmony and a very long pianissimo/morendo ending. The only way to do it is to trust the conductor and Lucas Elkin delivered it impeccably.
Among the other eleven items in this lunch-time pot-pourri we also got a pleasing rendering of Beata Viscera by William Byrd. Of course we’ve been marking the 400th anniversary of his death all this year so he’s pretty ubiquitous at the moment. Here, that characteristic, eight-part, soaring sound was delivered with panache.
Qui Creavit Caelum by Philip Mead is a tricky piece because it wanders through many keys and those descending intervals must be tricky to get accurate but this was a very creditable performance.
Included for balance were some pieces that anyone who’s ever sung in a choir will know intimately. Both John Goss’s See Amid the Winter Snow and Gustav Holst’s In the Bleak Winter were sung with clarity and warmth. And I liked the account of Peter Cornelius’s The Three Kings with Will Hale singing the tenor solo. The balance was excellent with the accompanying choir and Hale was very pleasant to listen to. There was a commendably nippy account of Berlioz’s The Shepherd’s Farewell too.
I have heard Elkin’s own arrangement of Stille Nacht before but had forgotten how lovely it is with a lot of colourful harmony from an all male group – until the last verse when there’s a soprano solo. Vincci Lau, an adult woman, sang this without vibrato and with all the transparent silvery crystalline beauty of a 9 year old choir boy.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing was billed as the last number and nearly everyone in the audience got a cheerful surprise because Elkin’s arrangement sets it to Arthur Sullivan’s Eagle High from Utopia Limited. It works astonishingly well and made a fine, upbeat ending to this charming concert.
Versatile Mo Wah Chan was another reason why this concert was as good as it was. She sang soprano in all the unaccompanied numbers, walking across the space to provide piano accompaniment where it was required. And it was all done with quiet efficiency and skill.
Michaelhouse is a good venue too. One end of the church is a busy café while the east end is used for services and concerts. The acoustic is warm and friendly and the glass screen between the building’s two sections acts as pretty effective sound proofing.