O FOR THE WINGS OF A DOVE
Caius College Cambridge
Victoria Concert Hall
The sound of heaven descended to Earth, specifically
Victoria Concert Hall, on an August evening with the excellent Choir of Gonville
& Caius College Cambridge led by its long-time music director Geoffrey
Webber. The choir is well-known for performing lesser-known repertoire on its
many excellent recordings, but the programme presented this evening was filled
with familiar choral favourites.
The 23-member choir of mostly students with two organ scholars Michael How and Luke Fitzgerald generated a rich and voluminous sound for its relatively small size, and filled the spacious venue with an outsized sonority. Bigger choirs have come and gone, but this one impressed with the quality of ensemble and strong individual voices.
English composers featured prominently with motets from William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons opening the lovely programme. The homogeneity of the voices provided a warm and comforting presence that was continued in Monteverdi’s Ave Maris Stella and Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.
In Allegri’s famous Miserere, the choir was split into three smaller groups, placed on stage, the balcony (circle seats) and a solo baritone at the back of the stalls. The effect was celestial, and not since that most memorable Miserere by the Tallis Scholars in the early noughties has the hall resounded with such vibrancy. For the titular Mendelssohn Hear My Prayer (O For The Wings Of A Dove), there was no boy soprano but soprano Aleksandra Wittchen (above) was to be just as magical.
There were more excellent solo voices heard in Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice In The Lamb, one of the 20th century English composer’s more accessible works. Here, animals, plants and musical instruments offer their praise to God in a luminous and joyous paean that ends quietly but happily. In Three Shakespeare Songs by Vaughan Williams, beautiful harmonies reigned, such as in the bell sounds of the first song Full Fathom Five.
The English programme was completed by conductor Webber’s own arrangement of Greensleeves (a rather original take on a familiar tune), John Rutter’s arrangement of O Waly, Waly (also very beautiful), and closing with by Hubert Parry’s ceremonial I Was Glad, performed at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
The small but appreciative audience accorded the choir much applause, and they were rewarded with Frances Cheryl-Hoad’s Beyond The Night Sky as an encore. Its ethereal harmonies and general feeling of wonderment were accompanied by “sounds” of whizzing comets and twinkling stars – whistles and wheezes – and the words of Gonville & Caius’ most famous alumnus Stephen Hawking. That was simply the most fitting and breathtaking way to close an excellent evening of choral music.