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Concert Reviews

Saturday 27 May 2017   York Minster:  Music for Troubled Times (and CD review)

WAR sharpens sensitivities. The only time England was at war with itself, York came under siege, in 1644. Both siege and Civil War inspired some of the most distinctive choral music in our history. Paul Gameson and his Ebors are absolutely the right people to encapsulate this repertory for posterity. They did so on Saturday while launching their disc of the same music.

Much of it was sacred and tended to the reflective. An exception was William Lawes’s catch, See How Cawood’s Dragon Looks (pronounced ‘Corwood’ on disc rather than today’s ‘Caywood’), which recalls Parliamentary forces taking Cawood Castle in 1642.


A fascinating insight came with Lawes’s setting of Psalm 100, in which the common tune to All People That On Earth Do Dwell is interspersed with exceptionally vivid solo (‘verse’) sections that make serious demands on the soloists. Four other psalms of this type also appear on the disc, all done with great verve. Byrd made an unexpected appearance – he had died in 1623 – with O Lord, Make Thy Servant Charles, the king’s name substituted by John Barnard in 1641 for the original ‘Elizabeth’. 


The Italianate chording of George Jeffreys’s How Wretched Is The State was immaculately smooth, and the soprano soloists – Moira Johnston and Katherine Harper – were fluent in Matthew Locke’s verse anthem, How Doth The City Sit Solitary. But the pièce de résistance was Tomkins’s splendid eight-voice setting of Psalm 86, O God, The Proud Are Risen Against Me.

Letters between Charles and his consort Henrietta-Maria provided a helpful narrative thread, read by Helena Daffern and Jason Darnell. These are not on the disc, which does however include anthems by John Wilson and Henry Lawes, as well as Tomkins’s A Sad Pavan For These Distracted Times, played by David Pipe on a portative organ. Pipe provided stalwart but tactful support throughout the programme, as also on disc.  A lovely evening.


Saturday 18 December 2016   National Centre for Early Music: A Ceremony of Carols (York Press)

FOR some, Handel's Messiah makes their Christmas musically complete. For others, myself among them, Britten's A Ceremony of Carols fills the bill. So the Ebor Singers' 20th century Christmas, conducted by Paul Gameson and spearheaded by the Britten work, was a three-line whip. In its original form, for three-part female (or boys) voices, as here, it has a pristine clarity not found in the full-choir version. Britten combines the manger birth's tenderness with pagan Yule's earthiness.  So did the choir: the varied dynamics of There Is No Rose tailed off into a lovely pianissimo, after an ebullient Wolcum Yole! Moira Johnston's cool soprano made the most of Balulalow, and This Little Babe was rhythmically exciting, emerging with a triumphant unison near its end.  


Rachel Dent, taut throughout, brought a properly wintry chill to the harp interlude. There was some imprecise choral chording in In Freezing Winter Night, and the extreme rapidity of Deo Gratias weakened its dotted rhythms, but it was still an invigorating account.

Two Howells carols, including A Spotless Rose, contained the ring of truth, as did Joubert's There Is No Rose, which flowed beautifully.


Saturday 11 July 2015   St Olave's Church: 20th Anniversary concert (York Press)


IN a city as musically vibrant as York, new ensembles seem to spring up with disorienting speed. Getting one to stick is no mean feat, and this makes the groups that have managed it – like the Ebor Singers – all the more valuable. With Saturday’s Anglo-centric programme they celebrated twenty years at the heart of York’s choral firmament, lead by founder Paul Gameson.

Two decades of concerts, records, and tours have not robbed the ensemble of its vitality. Just when you think you’ve heard Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ one time too many, along comes a full-bodied rendition like this to make your hair stand on end. It was offerings such as this and Parry’s ‘I was glad’ that initially impressed, handing the group a license to make a far bigger, bolder sound than anyone would usually expect of just twenty voices.


It was the partsongs and folk arrangements of the second half that played to the strengths of both venue and choir. Stanford’s reposeful ‘The Bluebird’ and two frolicsome John Rutter settings were particular highlights. An otherworldly rendering of Eric Whitacre’s ‘Sleep’ served as a reminder of the astounding breadth of this group’s repertoire. In the face of modern-day pressures to specialise, the Ebor Singers only seem to become increasingly versatile. Long may it continue.


Saturday 30 May 2015   National Centre for Early Music: New Horizons (York Press)


THEIR concert’s title, New Horizons, suggested striving for distant ambitions, but the confidence with which The Ebor Singers tackled some demading music demonstrated achievement here and now.  Paul Gameson directed -unobtrusively from the ranks - three English Renaissance pieces. A warm, rich sound was established immediately in Robert Parsons’s Ave Maria. Although occasionally entries were not instantly unanimous, Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices was smoothly done, the Gloria strong, the Credo bold and animated.

Byrd’s lamentation Ne Irascaris Domine was appropriately desolate. It is strange when listening to this polished music beautifully sung to recollect that the Catholic Byrd was so profoundly embroiled in the ecclesiastical turmoil of the Reformation.


Gameson assumed a more formal conductor’s role for Howells’s Salve Regina, the choir revelling in its intense harmonies. It made a satisfying bridge between the Tudor world and the two modern works to follow.  Kerry Andrew composed her York Mass for this group in 2008, and they clearly treasure it. Its oscillating harmonies and spacious textures indicate the resonant spaces of York Minster, for which it was conceived, but it all came over effectively in this smaller acoustic, the jazzily rhythmic Sanctus and penitential Agnus Dei making a strong impression.  James Macmillan’s Christus Vincit closed the concert: initially ignoring the triumphant aspects of its text, it built to an ecstatic climax, the high solo soprano part sung with warmth and clarity by Clare Steele-King. Now in their 20th anniversary year, The Ebor Singers presented a thoughtful and enjoyable programme.


Friday 27 March 2015  Chapter House, York Minster: Path of Miracles (York Press)  


It takes a daring, committed choir to present a concert combining Renaissance and contemporary sacred music, let alone a programme of only four works, including substantial compositions from each period.  Last Friday, The Ebor Singers did so and proved their mettle, in the first concert of their 20th anniversary. Warming up with Orlande de Lassus, a stately tempo afforded discernible polyphony and highlighted impassioned dissonances in the Chapter House’s reverberant acoustic.  The text was more intelligible in York composer Ian Colson’s mainly homophonic setting. The choir exploited the crunchy, cluster-filled harmony in vogue. Though performed with gusto and elegance, the through-composed form lacked direction.

In between, the choir’s excellent blend, full-bodied forte and pronounced phrasing were on show in Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Missa pro defunctis. Paul Gameson’s spirited conducting drove the nine parts to a pressing Libera me. The second half’s singular item, Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles (composed 2005) is a bold, challenging work. An hour long, it comprises three movements of symphonic stature (complete with recurring motifs), constantly morphing textures, and at times complex harmony, all framed with a promenade entrance and exit. An enormous sing, it proved a thrilling experience: rhythmic drama, consolatory introspection (“That we are here is a miracle”), and an energetic end avoiding sentimentalism. Gameson’s control of foreground and background – always maintaining clarity – was impressive.  Happy 20th anniversary, Ebor. There’ll be plenty more where this came from.


23 Saturday 4 October 2014  Late Music Festival, York: Come, sable night   (York Press)


WITHOUT a strong thread tying it together, a themed concert programme can easily appear cobbled together. When it works – as it did at Unitarian Chapel on Saturday – it offers welcome food for thought. The Ebor Singers’ spiritual exploration of light and darkness boldly married contemporary and classical, with five centuries represented.


The ensemble hit the ground running: focussed in Tallis, strident in Ward. Beyond simply filling the building with their well-blended sound, the singers seemed intent on designing their own sonic architecture: tapered edges in Bach, graceful arches in Rheinberger. Paul Gameson was an attentive helmsman, teasing out musical shape.


A leap into the twenty-first century provided spine-tingling moments, the initial echoes of Paul Mealor’s ‘…And Profoundest Midnight…’ distorting and ascending to a searing climax. Withholding applause between pieces – as requested – suddenly proved very difficult.

Rautavaara’s Ehtoohymni entranced with exotic harmonies, and a new commission from Eve Harrison spotlit assured soloists.


After the interval, Kerry Andrew’s richly varied Dusk Songs breathed new life (and new sounds, gong included) into liturgical traditions. With the chapel space utilised to dramatic effect, a series of exceptional solo turns brought sharp focus to mercurial music.

Overall, a successful theme. Whether old and new were happy to be bedfellows on this occasion is hard to say; that they’re sharing a bed is important, though. And when a performance is this engaging, who cares?


Saturday 8 March 2014, All Saints Church, York: Music for Holy Week from Rome   (York Press)


For their five concerts between now and November, the Ebor Singers are following the theme of musical responses to the arrival of darkness. It promises to be fruitful. Vespers have excited composers throughout the ages, notably Monteverdi. Away from the church, nocturnes and serenades have been a happy hunting ground for musical suitors since time began.


Darkness is also associated with the last three days before Easter, reflecting Christ’s Passion, with the rite of Tenebrae (Latin=darkness) involving the gradual extinction of candles. Lamentations are part of this process.  Victoria’s six settings of these for Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday featured in Saturday’s programme. It was given in the congenial setting of All Saints, Pavement, which proved excellently suited to these 14 clean-toned voices. They were led from within the group by Paul Gameson.  Although all were marked by superior musicianship and impeccable tuning, the Saturday lamentations proved the more engaging. The magical change of direction in Aleph (No 2) and the progressively higher soprano entries in No 3 were special moments.  The accompanying 12 short motets (Responsories) amplified the Passion narrative: notably effective were Una Hora (with basses ‘sleeping’) and a movingly restrained O Vos Omnes (All you who pass by).  Not all endings were neatly tailored and the altos might have been more incisive at cadences. But these are minor cavils. Allegri’s Miserere and Lotti’s treacherous Crucifixus – almost as convincing – made pleasing conclusions to each half of a most impressive evening.


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