The Levens Choir gave its first two concerts under its new music director Gawain Glenton, accompanied by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. Gawain is an internationally-renowned virtuoso of renaissance Venetian music and his choice of music reflected his expertise. His focus for these concerts was the work of Claudio Monteverdi.
The opening piece, Domine ad adiuvandum, got things off to a cracking start - a veritable fanfare of voices and instruments with great support from the soloists, one of whom was drafted in at very short notice. The choir was in perfect synchronisation and note-perfect from the off. This piece, part of Monteverdi’s best-known work, the Vespers of 1610, had choir and ensemble in clear understanding and set the tone for the evening.
Then followed Alessandro Grandi’s Nisi Dominus, sung by the soloists with the sackbuts providing fine accompaniment and the choir supporting - a showcase for the expertise of the professional musicians. Monteverdi’s Domine ne in furore gave the choir the chance to demonstrate its skills, providing a lovely round, rich sound, helped by the sympathetic acoustics.
Other highlights included Franzoni’s Sancta Maria, where the female voices complemented the bass notes of the sackbuts beautifully; Gabrieli’s Beata es virgo, which gave the ensemble a vehicle to demonstrate their prowess on these rarely-heard early instruments; and the conclusion to the first half of the concert, Monteverdi’s Beatus vir, which saw the choir pass the text from section to section flawlessly.
Your reviewer was reminded more than once of the Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Gabarek - the way the voices and instruments complemented each other was very similar. High praise indeed.
And so to the second half, where the choir gave us a rich, deep, resonant sound in Monteverdi’s Cantate Domino, followed by his Adoramus te, Christe, a much gentler piece with lovely clear lines from the altos. The Audi coelum featured the tenor soloists in counterpoint from opposite sides of the church. Grillo’s Sonata prima had all seven musicians, with Gawain prominent on cornett, playing with a remarkable agility and lightness of touch.
Then back to Monteverdi to conclude the concert: his Ave Maria Stella showed his characteristic variations on a simple tune and the final Amen was glorious; and finally, the Magnificat primo, which really was magnificent and which featured a fine duet from basses from the choir, drew things to a rousing conclusion. The applause at the end was long, warm and fully deserved.
Overall: the soloists were clearly very familiar with the works, performed well and linked with the choir seamlessly; the ensemble were absolute masters of their craft and played with obvious brio; and the programme was interesting and varied, providing a perfect introduction to the genre for the uninitiated.
And the choir was magnificent. The energy in the choir throughout was obvious - many of the singers had huge smiles - and the commentary from Gawain provided background information which added to the enjoyment greatly.
After nearly 50 years under its founder, Ian Jones, who built the choir’s deserved reputation, the future with Gawain Glenton at the helm looks every bit as promising. Bravo.SP
Venice was at the heart of European trade in the 16th and 17th centuries and, coupled with political and religious tolerance, created the conditions for music publication and performance to flourish there. This was the historical background to this evening’s concert which so richly brought to life the music of that time and place.
Covid has been a scourge for choirs and continues to make public performances problematic, with last minute call-offs. That Levens Choir were able to perform to their customary high standard is a tribute to all those taking part, and is a relief to concert-goers, grateful that ‘live music’ is beginning to flourish again. Supported by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble (ECSE) and vocal soloists, and under new choir director Gawain Glenton, we heard some accomplished presentations of an ambitious programme of works by Claudio Monteverdi, Alessandro Grandi and Giovanni Gabrieli, amongst others.
Levens Choir’s ability to remain sure-footed and well-blended even when in eight or ten separate parts is commendable, a testament to their depth of resources, though I was sorry not to see the youngsters that have graced the choir in the recent past. The presence of ECSE and a chamber organ brought a pleasing variety of sound colour to proceedings, the sackbuts conveying a rich sonority whenever they played. The short prayer by Amante Franzoni ‘Holy Mary pray for us’ sung by the sopranos and accompanied by sackbuts was beautifully executed. Performances in thefirst half though, I felt, were somewhat understated, and I was beginning to think that the Lancaster Priory acoustic was affecting the impact of the choir, until the final item before the interval, Monteverdi’s ‘Beatus Vir’, which brought the first half to a rousing conclusion.
This was a foretaste of what followed in a second half full of variety, caution thrown to the wind. ‘Aude Coelum’ from Monteverdi’s Vespers, to which the singing of the two tenor soloists Ian Honeyman and James Savage-Hanford brought an admirable dramatic intensity, was particularly full of energy. The choir resting, ECSE almost transported us to St Mark’s Square. The verses of the hymn ‘Ave Maris Stella’, each framed by ECSE, were serenely presented, with delightful solo contributions not least from sopranos Fiona Weakley and Rachel Little. Monteverdi’s ‘Magnificato Primo’ brought the concert to an energetic conclusion, with fine rhythmic precision and dynamic variation. The tenor soloists’ exchange was again splendid.John Hiley, 11.4.22