Southsea, 8 July
There was much to take away from The Renaissance Choir’s “Byrd Song” programme which proved to be so much more than a celebration of William Byrd’s recent 400th anniversary. Indeed, this ambitious and generous programme was packed with musical variety somehow spanning the entirety of space and time from Queen Elizabeth 1 to John Cage’s Four2. Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices and the motet Laudibus in Sanctis provided the mainstay with different movements of the Mass threaded between other items throughout the performance. There were also merry excursions away from the church and out into the fields where we lingered amongst Britten’s heady Flower Songs, where we went Searching for Lambs (trad.) and then paid homage to the “Devil’s bird” (The Magpie – Davey Dodds). This attention-grabbing mix didn’t feel in the least awkward and the shifts from the sacred to folk to modern and contemporary were carefully managed. The wide range of material on offer also presented the choir with every opportunity to display its considerable capabilities, both as an ensemble but also through some notable solo performances.
The inclusion of Cage’s Four2 brought an avant-garde dimension into play as the choir retreated to the back of the church to create maximum space between itself and the audience. Helpful programme notes informed us that this piece consisted of “a series of notes sung for a specified time to a syllable from the word Oregon”. That may well have been the fact of the matter but the result was something much more ethereal and difficult to pin down– a continuous, unbroken but shifting, wall of sound performed without bar lines. It was intriguing and meditative. Also of note was a contemporary re-imagining of Byrd’s Ave Verum by Roderick Williams. This discordant, questioning piece had an emotional charge which stood out.
The Renaissance Choir has a good vibe and comes across as being a very happy and friendly family of voices. There was much musical co- operation on display and choir members conveyed a real sense of unity in their musical intentions including through some beautifully poised dynamic changes. The performance also had an impressive conviction about it but with absolutely no sign of any pretension – this allowed the music to speak for itself at all times. Peter Gambie conducted with a quiet confidence born of much experience and the choir were sensitively responsive to his direction. There were perhaps one or two moments where male voices deserved more prominence but this is always a challenge when the numbers of tenors and basses are relatively low.
The Church of the Holy Spirit itself felt like a good place to be for music- making, offering sufficient openness whilst retaining a sense of welcome and intimacy. The acoustics worked well for this performance and we got to hear all the words!
This was an eclectic and engaging programme performed to a high standard and was much appreciated by a supportive audience. The Renaissance Choir can next be heard on 28 October 2023 at St Peter’s Church in Petersfield. The programme will include Mozart’s Requiem.