Psalm settings from Cantoris at St Paul’s Cathedral lunchtime

Cantoris: a lunchtime concert: ‘Like as the hart’

Anthems based on Psalm texts, by Mendelssohn, Stanford, Howells, Franck and Elgar

Director: Richard Apperley with Janet Gibbs at the organ

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Friday 13 July 2012, 12.45pm

The choir of around 30 took an unusual position in the church, arrayed in a semi-circle at the front of the choir, facing the sanctuary, while the audience sat on the choir stalls on either side and on seats placed between the choir stalls, facing the singers and out to the nave.

Since the concert was opened with words from the (I assume) Canon The Revd Jenny Wilkens, and a prayer, I took it to be in the nature of a service about which it would be inappropriate to write a normal review.

What struck me was the manner in which Richard Apperley (assistant director of music at the cathedral) had succeeded in producing performances from what is essentially a secular choir that sounded perfectly apt in spirit, scale and musical understanding, as if from the cathedral choir itself. Seated very close to the singers, one could not tell what the sound would have been like in the nave, but my impression was of singing that was produced effortlessly, that expanded into the huge space with perfect clarity, while also exploiting, almost ecstatically, the long reverberation that can be such a wonderful experience, with the right music from voices handled properly.

The Mendelssohn anthem, ‘Hear My Prayer’, Psalm 55, is in two parts, each providing solos for a soprano. The first, Ailsa Lipscombe, sang with what one has come to think of as a perfectly pure, Anglican choir voice, most attractive, even and very adequately projected, and beautifully balanced with the subtle organ lines.

Apperley got singing from the choir that was crisp, almost staccato in nature, so leaving the job of sustaining the sounds to the body of air in the cathedral.

The second soprano who entered in the section, ‘O for the wings of a Dove’, was Asha Stewart, surprisingly similar in timbre to Lipscombe’s, though a slightly quieter voice. The balance between organ and choir in this, and throughout the recital, was very happy indeed, and the careful dynamic variations and phrasing was simply admirable.

The pieces were sung in pairs: the second pair opened with Stanford’s setting of Psalm 100, ‘Jubilate Deo’ – ‘O be joyful in the Lord’. Ailsa Lipscombe introduced this and the following anthem by Howells.

Stanford’s piece captured the joyous spirit suggested by the words, and the singing drew my attention to the quality of the men’s voices, particularly the basses.

Howells’s ‘Like as the Hart’, Psalm 42, involved alternating sections by men and women, the latter accompanied by high organ registrations. The effect was ethereal.

The next pair also began with Stanford – Psalm 23 – again with Lipscombe’s introduction which I thought a little too long. But here was another piece by Stanford, with an interesting organ accompaniment, reinforcing a process of revising my feeling about his music, as more and more of his orchestral and chamber, as well as choral music is being heard in good performances.

‘Lift thine eyes’ from Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a setting of Psalm 121. Here, the men of the choir left the semi-circle, allowing the women alone to reconfigure and sing this, now under assistant director Tessa Coppard: familiar Mendelssohn piety, though very nicely sung.

The last pair included Franck’s version of Psalm 150, ‘Laudate Dominum’ or ‘Alleluia! Praise the Lord’, and Elgar’s ‘Give unto the Lord’, Psalm 29.

I was pleased to hear something from outside the English tradition, though the Franck piece, with its almost martial rhythmic character, seems not especially French. The following Elgar anthem was more complex and elaborate, again with something of a martial air.

But whatever the character of the music, prayerful or proselytising, it was the choir’s singing and organ accompaniment, under Apperley that made this a rather unexpected pleasure to have listened to.

Review written by Lindis Taylor, and published on Middle-C