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S & H Concert Review

Holst: The Evening Watch and Works by Parry, Jonathan Harvey, Morten Lauridsen, Warlock, Delius and Britten 'Sacred and Profane': Holst Singers (conductor Stephen Layton), St Paul's Church, Knightsbridge, Saturday 2 March, 2002 (SD)

The Holst Singers display all the conviction, polish and enthusiasm of a gospel choir, tempered by that peculiarly restraint typical of, say, an Oxbridge college. In fact the choir, which also boasts a number of fine soloists, has all the marks of a professional ensemble without actually being one.

In Holst's 'The Evening Watch' the alto and tenor soloists sang beautifully as The Body and The Soul, and after the work's sempre pp marking the fortissimo ending was really thrilling. Again, in Parry's quietly impassioned 'There is an old belief' from Songs of Farewell, the choir's dynamics and overall control were superb.

'Come Holy Ghost', by Jonathan Harvey, featured a surprise soloist at the start; after my initial confusion as to where the voice was coming from I realised the conductor himself was producing the beautiful plummy tenor line. For most of the work, based on the famous plainchant Veni, Creator Spiritus, the choir provided a drone-bass of slowly shifting chords, above which soloists, notably tenor Samir Savant (the choir's only non-white European member, it seemed!) spun ecstatic lines reminiscent of Tavener. After an interlude in which the choir became a tangle of scrambling voices they converged on a simple, spare chord. As before, ensemble and diction were excellent throughout.

Morten Lauridsen's 'Six 'Fire Songs'' on Italian Renaissance Poems is a 20th-century 'homage' to the music of Morley, Gesualdo, Monterverdi and their like. The songs are all bound motivically by the opening 'Fire-Chord' depicting the flames of passionate, unrequited love. We heard some remarkably nifty singing here, particularly for non-native Italian speakers and especially in the lilting No 5, 'Luci Serene E Chiara' ; only occasionally were the words unclear. The singers' passion was palpable in the work's climax, 'Io Piango'. But in the final 'Se per havervi, oime' Lauridsen resorted to sentimental, American commercialism.

Warlock's fiendishly difficult 'The Full Heart' is dedicated to the composer Carlo Gesualdo, notorious for murdering his wife and her lover. Its dissonances, which a contemporary critic predicted would 'defeat any but the most skilful of choirs', certainly didn't defeat the Holst Singers, whose soaring sopranos and rumbling basses here were a particular delight.

And if the penultimate work, Delius's 'Two songs to be Sung on the Water', found the choir slightly jaded, with rather tight-voiced singing from the sopranos and from the tenor soloist, Britten's strange, sometimes jaunty 'Sacred and Profane' ended the evening on a triumphant note, with some of the nimblest basses I've ever heard.

Sarah Dunlop

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