Sporting an impressive pedigree, the Choir of Queen’s College, Oxford, presented a substantial concert Friday, April 13, at the All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma. The 21-voice ensemble started its California tour last week at the Stanford Memorial Church, with Point Loma as the tour’s most southern extension. They complete their California excursion Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles at the posh St. James in-the-City on Wilshire Blvd.
A superby trained ensemble under the direction of Owen Rees, the Queen’s College singers offered a hearty selection of English sacred choral music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a core of German Lutheran music at the center of their program, and a piece each by Anton Bruckner and Gabriel Fauré.
Unlike those fresh-faced touring choirs from U. S. midwestern colleges that memorize all of their music, these Oxford singers used music in performance. But they performed some extensive, challenging scores, including Herbert Howells’ complete Requiem from 1932, and I found the choral and interpretive skill they brought to this repertory to be most rewarding.
Rees and his singers opened with Charles Villiers Stanford’s stirring “Lighten Our Darkness,” certainly an appropriate text considering the national political malaise of both the visiting choir and their hosts. Resplendent in its bright choral declamation and robust full organ accompaniment, “Lighten Our Darkness” proved an excellent calling card for a choir that navigates dramatic contrasts with such finesse. Other staunchly Anglican works fleshed out the choir’s first section: John Ireland’s sumptuously lyrical “Greater Love Hath No Man,” Edward Elgar’s reflective a cappella “They Are at Rest,” and Charles Woods’ slightly pompous “Hail Gladdening Light.”
Including Bruckner’s motet “Christus factus est” allowed the choir to demonstrate its prowess negotiating the composer’s ever changing chromatic harmonies, and Rees brought out the work’s mystical intensity at every turn.
Organ scholar Rory Moules—our British cousins never have mere “accompanists”—bridged the two sections of the first half with a bracing, rhythmically immaculate account of J. S. Bach’s great “Dorian” Toccata, BWV 538, a work ideally suited for the All Souls’ Fritts-Richards mechanical action organ designed in the style of early 18th-century organs built in northern Germany. The Queen’s College Choir “Programme” listed flashy French Romantic organ solos for each of the organ scholars to play, and, scanning the program before the performance, I thought I would be emailing the Guinness Book of Records if these young musicians actually brought off the grand works of Louis Vierne and Jehan Alain on this instrument whose design and temperament begins to waver after the organ compositions Felix Mendelssohn.
Bach proved the ideal substitution, of course, and his “Dorian“ Toccata made the transition to the Lutheran composers seamless. To Heinrich Schütz’s motet “Selig sind die Toten,” Rees and his singers brought a parallel deep mystical piety we heard in their Bruckner, and the choir’s text painting in the Schütz could not have been more detailed or moving.
Although history books never fail to mention Johann Kuhnau as the esteemed predecessor to J. S. Bach as Leipzig’s musical director, North American choral directors never program Kuhnau’s music. Rees chose his a cappella Latin motet “Tristis est anima mea,” a contrapuntal gem with roots in Renaissance polyphonic style, which the choir interpreted with great sensitivity.
J. S. Bach’s motet for double choir “Komm, Jesu, Komm,” BWV 229, takes the shape of a dialogue between the two equal choirs, and the Queen’s College singers unleashed its angular declamation with powerful, highly rhythmic strokes. This choir’s German diction was much more clearly defined than that of a typical American choir, although their German vowels struck my ear as overly bright.
Laurence John, the other organ scholar traveling with the Queen’s College Choir, gave us a parting dose of Bach: the splendid Fugue in E-flat Major for Organ, BWV 552, from the Clavier Übung, Vo. 3. John chose excellent tempos, and his registrations reflected well the contrasting textures the composer devised for each section of this triple fugue. But his rhythmic security did not match that of his colleague Rory Moules.
Herbert Howells’ Requiem has not been neglected here in San Diego. Under the direction of Ruben Valenzuela, currently the Director of Music at All Souls’ Episcopal Church, the Bach Collegium San Diego gave a fine performance of this Requiem in fall of 2015, and the choral ensemble Sacra/Profana has sung single movements from this Requiem more recently. The Queen’s College Choir’s account of the Requiem emphasized the introspective character of Howells’ work while maintaining the steady progression through its six movements that reveals the composer’s confidence in Divine mercy. The choir’s warm, beautifully balanced sonic blend in the quieter sections could not have been more persuasive.
A final section brought Howells’ splashy “A Hymn for St. Cecilia” and shorter works by William Harris and William Walton. The choir’s lustrous, beautifully arched phrases of Fauré’s beloved “Cantique de Jean Racine” summed up many of this choir’s virtues, but they had another even more impressive card up their sleeve.
For their encore, the Queen’s College Choir sang a go-for-broke arrangement of “Over the Rainbow.” I am tearing up just writing that sentence!
This concert by the Choir of The Queen’s College, Oxford, was presented by All Souls’ Episcopal Church, San Diego, on Friday, April 13, 2018.