★★★★★ A spiritually profound, sensuously crafted performance from the Rolls-Royce of choirs.

Melbourne Recital Centre
July 19, 2016

At the first Melbourne performance of its national tour, there was a moment during the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge’s performance of the Kyrie from Frank Martin’s wonderful but often neglected Mass for Double Choir, that seemed to perfectly capture the audience’s experience. After a sudden tutti attack, that smashed through the weightless, drifting serenity of the preceding texture like a golden sledgehammer, a man sitting directly behind me let out an involuntary and quite audible moan. I could hardly blame him; despite being an entirely sacred programme, music making as sensuous and intoxicating as this feels almost sinfully indulgent. 

Anyone unfamiliar with this extraordinary ensemble could perhaps be forgiven for assuming a university group would merely be a bunch of budding enthusiasts, enjoying a singalong in between lectures. Appearances can be deceiving. It may be made up of young Oxbridge undergrads (the typical age of the singers in its ranks is under 21), but Trinity College Cambridge is truly the Rolls-Royce of choirs. Its members are cherry picked by director Stephen Layton from a fiercely competitive field of superbly talented hopefuls. The result of this elite recruitment process is a sound that is both multifaceted and yet pristinely controlled. This choir doesn’t deliver a featureless, unanimous blend, and nor does it try to. Its texture is alive and dynamic; a combination of more than 30 individually stellar voices who share a deep musicality and an ironclad sense of ensemble.

The level of this unshakeable musicianship was on display with an opening quartet of works, performed unconducted yet still offering exquisitely crafted detail. Arvo Pärt’s contemporary evocation of Renaissance polyphony in Bogoróditse Djévo was followed by three masterpieces representing the highwater mark of the ecclesiastical repertoire from that period, by Byrd, Tallis and Purcell. These appetisers seemed to offer a demarcation point, acknowledging the musical bedrock upon which the rest of the programme’s selection of 20th and 21st-century sacred works was built.

This choir has existed in one form or another since the early 14th century, or put another way, for more or less the entire history of the western classical tradition, so it is particularly commendable that Layton should opt to explore a programme celebrating modern masterworks during Trinity College’s Australian tour. Such a courageous aversion to complacency, from an institution as revered and astonishingly capable as this, is precisely the type of cultural leadership that ensures the thriving vibrancy and continued survival of the choral tradition.

Among these recent additions to the repertoire were two works written specifically for this choir. First, a newly commissioned work by Australian composer Joseph Twist, Hymn of Ancient Lands, showcased a deft control of sonority, using a folk-infused soprano solo as a counterpoint for the luxuriant, meditative wash of sound from the rest of the choir. Organ scholar and choir member Owain Park, aged just 23, offered a vivid, effervescent texture in The Wings of the Wind, in one of the more technically athletic pieces of the evening.

In addition to a selection of contemporary works written within the past decade – the highlight of which for me was American composer Eric Whitacre’s achingly touching setting of E. E. Cummings, I thank you God for most this amazing day – Martin’s Mass for Double Choir (completed in 1926) easily stood out as the crowning achievement of the night. It seems entirely inadequate to attempt to summarise a performance as committed, empathetic and spiritually profound as that delivered by Trinity College here, except to say that I have very rarely felt as moved and changed by a performance. This was the kind of experience that not only brought intense pleasure and awe, but also an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

Musica Viva Australia presents The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, touring nationally until August 2.


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