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Members  © 2011 Somerset Chamber Choir  Registered Charity No.1003687  

Patrons: Dame Emma Kirkby and Sir David Willcocks

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James MacMillan


Ave verum Corpus

Seven Last Words from the Cross

In splendoribus sanctorum


Somerset Chamber Choir

Southern Sinfonia

Ruby Hughes

Helen Semple

Helen Sherman

Andrew Tortise

Callum Thorpe

Howard Rowntree

Graham Caldbeck










Click here to view the concert programme


The Somerset Chamber Choir’s annual visit to Wells Cathedral is now a well-established and justly popular event in the County’s musical calendar. On this occasion the choir was joined by the superb Southern Sinfonia under their gifted leader, Alexander Hohenthal. Conductor Graham Caldbeck has never shied away from introducing contemporary and often challenging works to audiences – this seems to be a significant part of the Choir’s appeal - and the programme for the concert last Saturday evening was a fine example of this. A fascinating programme was on offer, which included a modern masterpiece coupled with a masterwork from the Classical period, and this was to prove a showcase for music-making of the highest order.

Following a stylish performance of Mozart’s justly popular motet Ave verum Corpus, the remainder of the first half of the concert was devoted to Scottish composer James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, a Cantata for Choir and Strings in which the composer combines the seven last utterances of Christ with excerpts from the Bible, enabling the listener to experience this ancient text anew. This remarkable composition conveyed the pain and suffering of the crucified Christ in harrowing detail, whilst including some surprising moments of beauty and light, perhaps offering glimpses of the paradise to come. Under the conductor’s skilful direction, this work could hardly fail to stir the emotions and the music seemed to liberate the furthest recesses of the vast Cathedral space. The Cantata undoubtedly placed huge technical demands upon both choir and orchestra, but the performers, including solo singers and small groups from within the choir, delivered a compelling performance of powerful intensity whose poignancy was only increased by the extended conclusion for the orchestra alone, which drew some stunning playing from the players, as the music sought to portray the final struggle, yet eventual peace, of the dying man. The modern idiom of this music made it rarely easy to listen to, but this was an intense experience that I would not wish to have missed - the Choir must be applauded for attempting this technically difficult work and for performing it with such commitment.

The choir began the second half with a shorter work by James MacMillan, the communion motet In splendoribus sanctorum, an intriguing setting of words taken from Psalm 109 which were set in a very simple style for the choir, but its choral phrases interspersed with a virtuosic trumpet part, dramatically played by Howard Rowntree in the organ loft behind and above the choir – the huge spaces beneath the Cathedral roof resounded to these aerial interventions. And so the performers next turned their considerable abilities to Mozart’s Requiem which, as the programme note reminded us, remains one of the most daring works of its kind written in the 18th century, and one of the most powerfully influential works of its period. From the opening Kyrie to the last great fugue, Cum sanctis, the choir impressed with its mastery of long, difficult polyphonic phrases, and the combined forces certainly achieved the volume needed to match the power of the words, which were delivered with ample clarity and precision. Given that this is a work that is also infused with tenderness, a little more dynamic contrast within some of the extended sections could, in this listener’s opinion, have elevated the performance to even greater emotional heights, but there is no doubt that this was an accomplished and thrilling performance, with choir and orchestra exploiting their winning partnership to great effect. The four young soloists made excellent contributions, although I particularly enjoyed the resonant voices of the mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman and baritone Callum Thorpe, and all four voices blended very pleasingly when joined in ensemble.

Next Summer, the choir will celebrate its 30th Anniversary in Wells Cathedral with a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, in a joint venture with the German choir Berliner Kantorei, which is a mouth-watering prospect. However, for now, let the choir enjoy the plaudits for last week’s concert which, once again, amply demonstrated how the Somerset Chamber Choir should be cherished as an indispensable part of the fabric of musical life in Somerset.


Louise Kirk


Saturday 27 July 2013

Wells Cathedral

Mozart Requiem, James MacMillan Seven Last Words


Click to download concert poster