Reviews of Chandos Singers Performances

Purcell and Inspiration, The Chandos Singers, Magdalen Chapel 6th July 2019

‘O fair, fair have fallen, so dear to me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell‘ wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Last Saturday the Chandos Singers under their muse and conductor Malcolm Hill, sang us through an excursion into European music in the 17th century in an evening’s music based around the ‘arch-especial spirit’ Purcell and those who influenced him. The mostly Latin words and their translations reminded us of the European languages of both Latin and music.

Purcell alternated with John Blow (who spied on the Continent under several monarchs using music as a cover) as organist of Westminster Abbey. Blow brought home continental musical ideas, as well as information, from various courts.

Chandos ended the first half with a setting of John Donne’s famous ‘No man is an Island …… but a piece of the continent, a part of the Main’, composed by their own bass, Paul Feldwick. It was a beautiful exploration of ‘For whom the Bell Tolls’ paying tribute to the Estonian Arvo Part’s tintinnabulation compositions. As Purcell himself wrote: ‘Music and Poetry have ever been acknowledged sisters’.

The second half finished with difficult music – both for singers and hearers – Tippett’s Magnificat – continuing into the 20th Century the long history of setting biblical and liturgical texts to music.

Unusual music – insight into remoter byways of the cross-fertilisation of intellectual and musical ideas – put together by a skilled scholarly conductor, and a choir which makes a worthy instrument for him.

Smuggled from Europe, April 2019

Once again in the magical setting of the Magdalen Chapel, the excellent Chandos Singers presented a concert of music based on an unusual theme. Between the pieces performed by the Singers, their conductor Malcolm Hill explained that what the works had in common was the manner in which they were introduced into this country – as the concert’s title indicates, this manner was not always above board and reflected the political and religious volatility of Europe in the era during and after the Reformation. As Dr Hill pointed out, when the works in question were finally performed in England, they often sounded very different from their composers’ original intentions.

If you thought this a very dry or obscure subject, you would be reckoning without two important features of the evenings success. One is the fact that Dr Hill wears his erudition lightly and delivers his explanations with wit and charm; the other is the glorious singing of the Chandos Singers, which brings the music to life with such thrilling conviction and commitment.

The programme included sacred works by Jean de Castro, Josquin Des Prez, Lassus, Ockeghem and Henry Du Mont, as well as some anonymous composers, all of whom were truly European. The Chandos Singers’ accounts of these works showed clearly how they can blend into balanced and satisfying harmonies. Very different in feel from the devotional and liturgical pieces was the song by an unknown composer or indeed a succession of adaptors) about a woman who had aggrieved and embittered the singer. This was richly and sonorously delivered by Paul Feldwick and the Chandos gentlemen, with a suitably rancorous drum accompaniment.

Most of the second half of the concert was taken up by the captivating Stabat Mater by the great Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who sadly died in his twenties. Despite assurances that this was not really an operatic piece, its theatrical qualities could not help shining through, helped no end by the stylish and lively delivery by tonight’s performers. The choice of this work proved that as well as being a superb ensemble, the Chandos Singers can field any number of distinguished soloists, with Katharine Adams and Katherine Lush making a particular impact.

The whole programme was yet another success for Malcolm Hill and his singers, whose talent for breathing life into unjustly neglected compositions is undimmed.