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RACHMANINOV VESPERS Armonico Consort at St Mary's Church, Warwick A CHURCH, a summer evening, 27 singers dressed all in black, and a single piece of music: sometimes there's a special magic in doing things simply. Not that there's anything simple about Rachmaninoff's Vespers, the sole work in this concert by Armonico Consort under its artistic director Christopher Monks.

This performance served Rachmaninoff beautifully, especially as the evening light began to fade. Monks and his team played it straight, just standing there and singing - with the exception of two sections when they quietly took position on all four sides of the church and let the sound envelop the audience. And what sound! Armonico Consort has the two absolute prerequisites for this work - floating, honey-toned sopranos, and basses whose pianissimo bottom notes can make the very air seem to quiver.

But the inner voices were what made this performance glow from within. Soloists stepped briefly out of the choir: a plangent tenor (Joseph Doody), a rich but nicely-focused bass (Lewis Jones) and an alto (Polly Jeffries) whose unfussy tone was affectingly poignant against the choir's velvet cushion of sound. Monks paced the piece naturally, at the speed of speech, leaving room for his singers to colour individual words ("Alliluyas" chimed out like little bells) but accelerating seamlessly and organically into Rachmaninoff's ecstatically syncopated climaxes.

It all felt of a piece, and yet the choir sounded as fresh, as focussed, and as tenderly reverent in the final Vzbrannoy Voyevode as they had an hour earlier. A concert performance this may have been; but somehow, at the end, it didn't seem right to clap.

Richard Bratby SUMMER SHOWCASE CBSO at Symphony Hall WE'VE always known what a superb machine the CBSO is, so the opportunity to admire its separate parts was not to be missed. And what a splendid occasion it was, both for the players and Alpesh Chauhan, whose contract as the orchestra's assistant conductor has just been extended for a second year.

Of course, when a section plays on its own the conductor becomes more of a co-ordinator than full-on interpreter, something Chauhan clearly understands. His unforced handling of Strauss's Suite in B flat for 13 winds allowed plenty of space for elasticity of phrasing and articulation, and some deliciously mellifluous solos.

For the brass Elgar Howarth's imaginative arrangement of Mussorgky's Pictures At An Exhibition showed just what exciting sounds can be drawn from an expanded palette of brass colours (especially when played with such firm-of-lip panache) and a conductor alert to good balance.

The two percussion items were less rewarding. Steve Reich's Music for Pieces of Wood might be an intriguing rhythmic exercise, but quickly outstays its eight-minute duration; and the huge array of instruments in John Cage's First Construction (in Metal), which Chauhan conducted with military four-in-a-bar precision, certainly tickled the ears although, by today's standards, its inventiveness seemed disappointingly limited.

Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony for strings, however, was quite different. With its four-note motif an ever-present symbol of the composer's torment and despair, and the cello solos of Eduardo Vassallo singing songs of forlorn memory, this was a stunningly moving performance, made even more so by the unobtrusive direction of concert master Laurence Jackson.

When musicians listen so intently to each other who needs a conductor? David Hart BIRMINGHAM BACH CHOIR St Paul's Church, Hockley THIS large Chamber Choir was founded more than 90 years ago delivering an extensive world-wide repertoire from all periods. Their regular accompanist is Martyn Rawles with guest organists appearing for the concert day: on this occasion the highlyesteemed Alex Mason.

A thought-provoking, mainly solemn evening of religious choral music, the Bach Choir certainly had challenges and one wonders how often they were able to rehearse with the full organ sound rather than an accompanying piano.

Conductor Paul Spicer drew wonderful breadth of tone from his large forces with clear and precise directions. However, balance was often worrying particularly in Langlais' Messe Solennelle, with the organ blasting across many hoped-for subtleties from the singers. Thankfully Benedictus came with relief with gently wandering mezzo-forte organ accompaniment and final major chord depicting peace.

Beautifully clear French charmed in Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine, a student composition with haunting familiar hymn echoes. Excellent balance throughout. A total delight.

A long growling organ introduction began Kodaly's Laudes Organi, somewhat untidy, leading to unaccompanied choir. No obvious Hungarian piquancy but highlights of good, clean fortissimo chords and firm ending.

Balance (burbling organ) at the start of Faure's moving Requiem was occasionally problematical, but the full voices sang with expressive conviction. Pure soprano/alto threads were no doubt originally for boys, but lovely here nonetheless. Lux Aeterna tugged heart strings as did soloists Claire Barnett-Jones and David Wynne. "The day of wrath" eventually led to the final exquisite In Paradisum. Smiles all round.

Maggie Cotton SHOSTAKOVICH QUARTET CYCLE Carducci Quartet at Syde Manor ????? THE Tithe Barn at Syde Manor, nestling deep in the Cotswolds between Birdlip Hill and Cirencester, is a gem of a venue. It's comfortable, airy, and has a fabulous acoustic. The only trouble is, you have to find it.

But having negotiated a seemingly interminable, sign-less single-track road, the rewards last weekend were more than ample, this year's Cheltenham Music Festival pre-launching itself in style with a brave traverse through all 15 of Shostakovi-ch's string quartets played with engaging enthusiasm, emotional commitment, and awesome physical stamina by the charming and immensely gifted Carducci Quartet (recorded by BBC Radio 3 for subsequent broadcast).

These young people perform with an empathy which is truly awesome (eye-contact is rarely needed), and with a skill which makes light of the huge technical demands Shostakovich imposes upon his players, whether in taking them up to the stratospheres, or digging through repeated notepatterns, or creating the quasi-orchestral textures set up by hugely taxing multiple-stopping over varied note-values.

Their odyssey was a triumph, and such a concentrated trawl brought an awareness of both the consistency and variety of Shostakovich's language, as well as the references to his output in other formats. We sympathised with his political perils during the Stalinist regime, we grasped his gradual influencing by Jewish music, and all the time we admired the strength of his indomitable character, sardonic, witty and despairing, all conveyed by the remarkable Carduccis.

Stephen Johnson's deeply-informed, passionate introductions were a bonus, and the catering was top-class and well-organised. But in future can we have more than one loo between 70 people made available? And reassuring road-signs, please? Christopher Morley ELIZABETHWATTS AND AUDREY HYLAND Tardebigge Church "IT'S been quite an intense recital" admitted soprano Elizabeth Watts, immediately before she and pianist Audrey Hyland launched into the final section of their programme.

To be fair, no-one should have been fooled by the rural setting and tea-and-cakes atmosphere; the annual Celebrating English Song series at Tardebigge has never pulled its punches with repertoire.

Even so, this was a pretty dark programme. Thomas Traherne settings by Finzi and Elizabeth Maconchy could almost have been light relief, had Maconchy's vocal lines not been so ferociously angular, her tonal language so overcast.

Watts' voice leapt effortlessly over its huge intervals, and Hyland - who'd worked miracles of quiet poetry on the penny-plain keyboard version of Finzi's Dies Natalis - found light and shade in Maconchy's unforgiving writing.

Elsewhere there were meditations on death by W.B. Yeats (set by Rebecca Clarke) and Francis Thompson (Frank Bridge), and two separate settings - by Clarke and Elaine Hughes-Jones -of A.E. Housman's doomy little Eight O'Clock.

Hughes-Jones', the quieter, was the more devastating for it: the eerily still centre of a group of four full-blooded songs by this Malvern-based composer, who stepped up to receive a warm ovation.

Throughout it all, Watts and Hyland responded with absolute commitment. Watt's voice is so lustrous that it sweetened these bitter pills, whether pealing out at the top of a phrase or holding a long final pianissimo motionless in the air. But when we finally heard them cutting loose in the careless, freewheeling fantasy of Frank Bridge's So Early in the Morning, O! it was hard not to wish we'd spent a little less time in the graveyard.

Richard Bratby
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 2, 2015
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