Bach & Pärt - the power of the spirit

Sun, 26 Mar 2023
On Sunday 26 March, the Victoria Hall in Grange over Sands was treated to some beautiful choral singing by Levens Choir under the baton of Gawain Glenton, with organist Christopher Stokes in support. This was the second performance of their programme entitled ‘Bach and Pärt - The Power of the Spirit’, having been premiered in St George’s, Kendal the evening before.

The programme was framed by two great motets by J.S. Bach, interspersed with the music of some of Bach’s older relatives and of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki. This was an unusual mix which allowed the enthusiastic audience to enjoy the composers’ contrasting personal pursuits for spiritual truth in music. The Victoria Hall in Grange might not seem the obvious choice for a programme of this sort, but the building and the choir are a perfect match. It is an intimate space which gives a fantastic, honest platform for a choir of this size, and helped the audience to feel immersed in the choir’s clear, warm sound. 

To name a few of the individual pieces: Komm, Jesu, komm is a virtuosic motet for two choirs of four voices with long weaving lines, which is huge favourite of solo voice ensembles. The music was tackled with a sensitivity to the interplay of the voices and with Lutheran fervour by the choir, and the music flowed with momentum towards its final chorale. This felt like fun chamber music. Pärt’s Deer’s Cry which followed, a prayer for protection, has a poise and warm, contemplative feel which is given power by its repeated phrases, the silences in the music, and soaring soprano lines. It was beautifully paced. 

Some delightful solo playing on a Walter Chinaglia chamber organ by Christopher Stokes split each half of the concert in two. It is rare indeed to hear an audible laugh whilst listening to solo organ music. J.C. Bach’s Fugue on B.A.C.H. delighted the audience, providing a charming sorbet in amongst the more austere choral settings. The Pärt and Górecki pieces were sung with great impact and control, with rousing crescendos. The mesmeric and sustained fortes in the Pärt Nunc Dimittis and the imploring repeated cries of ‘Maria!’ in the Górecki Totus Tuus were thrilling. This is monumental music which inspires goosebumps.

Levens Choir, founded fifty years ago by Kendal’s choral mover and shaker, Ian Jones, is in safe hands, with its excellent organisation, talented singers and the inspiring new(ish) conductor Gawain Glenton at the helm. His deep understanding of the music he chooses, and his clear and encouraging direction produce excellent results. There are quality singers in each section which help all to raise their games, and tackle virtuoso repertoire. There was some excellent work from the soprano soloists, from the smaller groups in the Bach motets, sonorous low notes from the basses which underpinned the Eastern European repertoire in particular, and virtuosic singing from the inner parts which are given music of great interest. The result is homogeneous and sonorous and the audience was drawn in by the sincerity and depth of the music, sung with serious attention to detail, care with the language and committed communication. 

The evening’s programme ended with the tender final ‘gute Nacht’ of Jesu, meine Freude. A joyous encore of Pärt’s Bogoróditse Djévo left the audience on a high.

Gawain Glenton’s programme note and insightful chats in between pieces invited the audience to enjoy and feel involved in the music and music making. That we did. Bravo to all. What a joy to be treated to live music again.

Nicholas Hurndall Smith