June 2014: Summer Vespers

Holy Cross Church, Crediton

Saturday 28 June 2014

Source: David Batty


The Exeter Festival Chorus' annual excursion beyond the city walls this year took it to Crediton's large and handsome Holy Cross Church for a well-attended summer concert on 28 June.  Variety was the principal characteristic of the evening's repertoire of largely a capella works, from JS Bach through to John Tavener, conducted by the choir's director, Nigel Perrin.

First up was Komm, Jesu, Komm, a motet for double choir composed by Bach for a funeral.  The choir caught well the weary trudge of the opening and responded with increasing vigour to the more affirmative mood as the piece progressed.  Cello continuo was provided by Hetty Snell, underpinning a work which provides particular challenges for maintaining the double choir's pitch, especially in the higher voices.

Hetty Snell was also the eloquent soloist in the next work to be performed, John Tavener's Svyati and, like the Bach, written with funeral connotations.  Composed for solo cello playing at a distance from the choir, the work's resulting spatial and often magical effects were movingly caught in this performance.  Special congratulations to the basses of the choir who maintained a low, sonorous pedal note for much of the work!

If Svyati was recognisably by Tavener, most members of the audience would have been hard pressed to put a name to the composer of the next piece in the concert.  And yet Aaron Copland's colourful and quirky take on Genesis, In The Beginning, has many of the hallmarks of much of his 'outdoor' music.  A solo mezzo provides an overarching structure to the work and in this role Beth Mackay characterfully led the choir through the seven days of the creation story.  The many different rhythms and tempi were admirably caught by the performers, with a special commendation for their diction aided by the surprisingly dry acoustic of this large church. 

The second half of the concert comprised a sequence devised by Nigel Perrin of vesper settings drawn from two works by Tchaikovsky (Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and Nine Sacred Pieces) sung in Old Church Slavonic.  Here the Festival Chorus responded most effectively to the contrasts of exuberance (as in 'Svyati Bozhe'), quiet meditation (eg 'Kheruvimskaya Pesn') and affirmation (eg 'Khvalitye Gospoda') that seem to characterise such Russian church music.  The blend of the choir's singing in these pieces was especially impressive, with no stray voices out of place.

A most enjoyable concert concluded beautifully with, as a short encore, Nikolai Kedrov's Old Church Slavonic setting of The Lord's Prayer.