Concert Reviews

photo Chartres in celebration of 60th anniversary of twinning between Chichester and Chartres

Summer Concert – 22 June 2019

As their part of the Festival of Chichester, the Chichester Singers produced a rather special concert in the Cathedral. To an extent, it was a celebration, both of Jonathan Willcocks’ 40 years as the Singers’ conductor and also of the 60th anniversary of twinning between Chichester and Chartres. As an affirmation of the friendship between our two cities, the Singers were joined for this performance by fifteen members of the Choir of the Chartres Conservatoire. A number of Chartrains were also in the audience.

Celebrating the link between the French and English cities, the concert programme consisted of French and English choral music. The first work did not cause any language problems for the two choirs, as it was sung in Latin, the Messe Solennelle by Louis Vierne, a former pupil of César Franck. The work started powerfully, with a strong brass section from Southern Pro Musica Brass, and the chorus entered with equal power and kept admirably together as the accompaniment was joined by the organ and percussion. The performance of this Mass set the scene for most of the works in the programme, with strong singing accompanied by organ and brass, with little input from soloists or use of counterpoint.

The second work was of great interest to the audience as it was a composition by the conductor, Jonathan Willcocks, called From Darkness to Light, which had been commissioned by a choir in Texas, and set war poems by Ryland Baldwin, a member of that choir, to music. The organ, joined by the chorus singing very quietly, sets a sense of mystery, and the work achieves subtlety by combining the Latin text of a requiem mass with the English words of death and grief. One of the six sections was admirably sung by baritone Thomas Isherwood, and the chorus did justice to the other five sections, including a gentle unaccompanied Lacrymosa that was almost a lullaby.

Another choral work by a local composer, which was new to the audience, was Crucifixus by Jonathan Little, Professor of Music at Chichester University, which is a setting of 15th/16th century words, which were hard to understand even for a modern Englishman. However, the Anglo-French chorus rose to the occasion and made a confident entry into the rather dissonant start to the work and mastered the challenging complexity of the composition, developing with the accompaniment a rich and finally beautiful synthesis.

The other works in the programme were more familiar and less challenging. Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, a setting of a 17th century French poem for chorus and organ only, was performed sweetly and gently, with organist Richard Barnes providing a delicate accompaniment. Richard Barnes was also the accompanist, on the piano, to two songs by Reynaldo Hahn sung by the baritone with great beauty and feeling.

Panis Angelicus by César Franck, is one of the nation’s favourite songs, but on this occasion the solo line was sung, not by a tenor but by the sopranos, with the rest of the chorus joining in after the first verse to produce a thoroughly enjoyable sound. The final work in this very varied programme was John Rutter’s Gloria, another well known and well loved piece. This involved the Singers and members of the choir from Chartres, the Southern Pro Musica Brass and Richard Barnes at the organ, who is now retiring after 24 years as the choir’s skilled accompanist. Under the energetic direction of Jonathan Willcocks, they all contributed a lively finale to an enjoyable and interesting concert.

Bill Witts

St Matthew Passion – JS Bach

Lent, with Good Friday just around the corner, is undoubtedly the appropriate time in the Christian calendar to sing about the Passion. Last Saturday, the Chichester Singers did just that by performing probably the greatest of all the Passion settings – J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Chichester Cathedral. The work itself is a monumental mix of recitative, taking us through the Gospel story, interspersed with chorales, arias and choruses of sublime musical beauty and feeling.

The Singers themselves were on top form from opening to closing choruses. The cathedral acoustic demands that the voices project well over the orchestra in front of them and this they did generally very well. There was a slight imbalance between Choir 1 and Choir 2 in the movements that required a double chorus but this was a minor issue compared with the overall impact of their performance. I would also have preferred less heavy orchestral input supporting the chorales – or even for them to have been sung a cappella – but this would have been difficult when attempting to maintain tight ensemble in a chorus of over a hundred.

The five soloists – James Oxley, Timothy Nelson, Rebekah Jones, Thomas Isherwood and Margaret Ravalde were all excellent. Particular mention should be made of Ms Ravalde who stepped in at the last minute to cover for illness and performed the work in English for the first time. Her duet with Rebekah Jones in So ist mein Jesus was outstanding. James Oxley was the Evangelist and he impressively sang his recitatives from memory, ably underpinned by Richard Barnes’ harpsichord continuo.

The Singers were supported by their usual orchestra, the Southern Pro Musica who performed with their reliably consummate professionalism. For me, a St Matthew Passion performance succeeds or fails on the emotional effect of the tearful Erbahme dich, and here, the orchestra’s leader, Sophie Langdon, played her violin to near perfection – wonderful. Mention should also be made of the oboeists who played their thirds sublimely in Golgotha.

The success of the whole evening sat on the shoulders of conductor Jonathan Willcocks, who directed proceedings with his usual energy and verve. This was a performance to be proud of.

Martin Richardson

Lest We Forget – Centenary of the 1918 Armistice

And all the trumpets sounded  – Ronald Corp

Ein Deutsches Requiem – Brahms

On the weekend before Armistice Day, The Chichester Singers put on a concert of two works that reminded us of the sacrifices made by young men in so many wars.  The first work was a modern composition, And all the trumpets sounded by Ronald Corp, in which sections of the Latin Mass are sung by the chorus between five poems sung by the baritone soloist.  The music is mostly war-like with thunderous beating of drums, loud fanfares from the trumpets and orchestration that seems to suggest the chaos of battle, and which was played with admirable discipline by Southern Pro Musica under the clear direction of conductor Jonathan Willcocks.

Baritone Gareth Brynmor John had a long and taxing role as the reciter of the poems of war and death and sang with clarity, musicality and good volume from beginning to end, though the acoustics of the Cathedral meant that most members of the audience were bent over their programmes, following the words.  In the choral interludes, The Chichester Singers sang the more familiar Latin words of the Mass with confidence and with power that matched the orchestra.  They were supported by the soprano soloist Claire Seaton, whose soaring voice added further emotion to the prayer to “grant them rest”. There was no let-up at the end, no quiet lamentation for those who died; this time all the trumpets sounded for the heroes who had passed over to the other side.

The second item in the concert was the German Requiem by Brahms, which was given its first performance 150 years ago.  This is a well-known work that contains some well-loved music and the Singers performed it in German, which gave the work some additional character.  It is a pleasure to listen to this oratorio, which is full of memorable tunes, and the Singers were in good form, singing the choruses more smoothly than in the previous work; the soprano line was particularly strong and confident.

For two of the movements of the oratorio, the choir was joined by the baritone soloist, Gareth Brynmor John, who sang dramatically about the mysteries of the end of life and, in the fifth movement, Claire Seaton finally took her place to sing the soprano solo Ye now have sorrow, her fine powerful voice dominating the chorus and orchestra.   While Brahms had intended that much of the Requiem should be sung quietly for its emotional effect, the size of the orchestra and the dimensions of the Cathedral meant that the performance was generally loud.   The singers and players were well controlled by the baton of Jonathan Willcocks, and the result was a stimulating performance of the work, which was much appreciated by the audience.

Bill Witts


Handel’s Messiah

Handel’s Messiah

Chichester Cathedral – Saturday 8th December 2018

For many, Christmas would not be complete without hearing Handel’s ever-popular Messiah, whether it be live or recorded.  A packed audience in Chichester Cathedral were treated to a performance of the oratorio, given by the Chichester Singers and Southern Pro Musica, conducted by Jonathan Willcocks.  Just as the first performance in The New Music Hall, Dublin, in 1742 was an unqualified success, so was this!

From the opening of the Sinfonia, Southern Pro Musica established themselves as a fine ensemble in all dynamic ranges, from the sotto voce accompaniment of For behold, darkness shall cover the earth to the sparkling Hallelujah chorus.  There was some fine playing by trumpeter Frazer Tannock in The trumpet shall sound, and some excellent continuo accompaniment from David Burrowes (cello) and Richard Barnes (organ). Intonation from unison 1stand 2nd violins employed by Handel in some items was spot on.

The Chichester Singers were in fine fettle throughout, and some fast tempi set by conductor Jonathan Willcocks did not throw them at all. They made light work of difficult choruses such as His yoke is easy and projected the meaning of the more poignant items of Part 2 (which focusses on Christ’s death).

Soprano soloist Bibi Heal (well-known to audiences in Chichester) sung with a purity of tone, navigating the more florid passages in Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zionwith total control, whilst I know that my redeemer livethwas one of the most moving performances I’ve heard.

Contralto Rosanna Cooper, after a slight lack of projection in her opening solo, soon settled into her stride and He was despised was sung with beauty and clarity.

Tenor Matthew Long adopted a more operatic approach than the other soloists, and one could argue that this was a valid interpretation to take, considering that Handel was an operatic composer at heart (the composer turned to oratorio to revive his financial difficulties caused through the escalating costs of staging his operas, as well as dwindling audiences).

Thomas Humphreys’ bass arias were consistently good, showing some excellent technique in the demands of Why do the nations, with controlled, expressive singing in Behold, I tell you a mystery.

Jonathan Willcocks must have conducted Messiah on very many occasions over the years, yet his approach to the work was as fresh as if he was conducting the work for the first time.  With a chorus of over 100, he was not afraid to push the tempo in some items: this gave them a real sparkle.

With resplendent Hallelujah and Amen choruses, the audience will have gone away knowing that the Christmas celebrations were well and truly under way!

© 2018, Mark Hartt-Palmer

REVIEW: Vaughan Williams and Walton

The Chichester Singers and Guildford Choral Society

Guildford Cathedral – 16thJune 2018

Perform Walton’s cantata Belshazzar’s Feast in Guildford Cathedral? Sixty years or so ago the idea would have seemed preposterous. Quite apart from the fact that Guildford Cathedral was not yet complete, a performance of the work in any cathedral was considered unsuitable by no less august a body than the Church of England.

And could the elaborate score stand the resonant acoustic of the refurbished Cathedral as it stands today? In fact, it worked remarkably well, although some subtleties were lost in the cavernous space. Under the steady baton of Jonathan Willcocks (whose father was responsible for introducing the work to the Three Choirs Festival), Guildford Choral and The Chichester Singers sang capably and convincingly with a good sense of drama when they could be heard above the splendid sounds of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. They were served by an excellent soloist in Gareth Brynmor John, who led the forces through the heartfelt lament for Jerusalem, the Babylon ‘catalogue’, and the dramatic description of the writing of the wall, with an appropriate sense of menace from the orchestral percussion depicting an immense balance.

Elgar’s gloriously autumnal Cello Concerto received a fine performance from Pavlos Carvalho, although the long sinuous melodies were better heard than the rapid passagework of the scherzo movement. This is a work that goes straight to the heart, and soloist and orchestra both ensured that it did so.

Gareth Brynmor John had begun the evening’s proceedings with a richly-voiced and sincere performance of Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs. In that building, and in that atmosphere, George Herbert’s words rang deeply true.

On 11thNovember the Guildford Choral Society will be joined by the London-based Bach Choir for a performance of Britten’s War Requiem to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice.

Shelagh Godwin

REVIEW: Handel, Parry and Duruflé

The Chichester Singers, with the Southern Pro Musica orchestra, served up a mixed programme of music in Chichester Cathedral, with compositions by three composers from three centuries. They got off to a wonderful start with Handel’s Zadok the Priest, with its exciting orchestral build-up and a cracking entry by the chorus. The choir were extremely well disciplined, singing entirely from memory, watching the conductor Jonathan Willcocks, who directed the chorus and orchestra so as to achieve a powerful and well balanced delivery. Set against the ancient walls of the Cathedral, with instruments producing an 18th century sound, it was as good a performance as one could wish for. The choir and orchestra also performed a second Coronation Anthem by Handel, The King Shall Rejoice, a longer and more complex work with several contrasting movements. The chorus sang strongly and accurately, the sopranos particularly having developed a pleasant fresh sound, and the orchestra continued to give the work the atmosphere of Handel’s time.

The concert included two arias from operas by Handel. Stephanie Wake-Edwards sang Cornelia’s Lament from Giulio Cesari. Stephanie has an impressive mezzo-soprano voice and used it to convey the sorrow of a lady who has seen her husband beheaded and her son taken from her and has no one to comfort her. Hugo Herman-Wilson had a more cheerful piece from Berenice and sang in a pleasant conversational style with a strong and flexible baritone voice.

These 18th century works were followed by Hubert Parry’s extended anthem Hear My Words, Ye People, which had a contrasting Victorian sound. It was originally written with organ accompaniment, but for this performance the Singers’ organist, Richard Barnes, had written an accompaniment that included orchestral players as well as the organ. This worked well, and the chorus, organist and orchestra performed the unfamiliar work with accuracy and enthusiasm. The baritone had a solo piece in the middle of the work, which again he sang strongly and directly to the audience. In the last movement the music finally became familiar, as the movement has become one of Parry’s favourite hymns.

The final work in the concert was a major 20th century choral mass, Duruflé’s Requiem, which also was accompanied by both orchestra and organ. It is a powerful work, the orchestra plays a major part, and the chorus were singing forte for most of the performance without losing their quality. It was nice to hear the mezzo-soprano again, with a solo part where she could sing out; her lovely voice soared into the space of the Cathedral. The baritone also sang an enjoyable solo, but the performance will be mostly remembered for the powerful playing of the orchestra, organ and above all the chorus, skilfully directed by their conductor Jonathan Willcocks.

Bill Witts

REVIEW: Verdi Requiem


Chichester Cathedral – 7.30 pm

It was fitting that The Chichester Singers should choose a Requiem Mass for their autumn concert this year, falling as it did on Remembrance Day. Verdi’s masterpiece, composed by that doyen of romantic Italian opera, manages perfectly to combine the sorrow of the occasion for which it was written with the emotion that this highly charged music generates. And all the musicians involved did the work more that justice. From the lyrical opening Requiem – beautifully performed by the Singers without scores – to the fiery Dies Irae – containing some excellent brass ensemble playing, the performance as a whole came together to produce an evening to remember.

Read moreREVIEW: Verdi Requiem

REVIEW: Feel the Spirit – 24th June 2017

At the start of the second week of the Festival of Chichester, the Chichester Singers produced their concert, which had been prepared so as to suit the Festival.  For those who have been attending the Singers’ concerts for some years, the programme was full of surprises.  There was no major work by a famous classical composer, but rather a number of pieces by contemporary musicians, the men of the choir had taken off their black dinner jackets and appeared in shirt sleeves, there was only one soloist and there was no orchestra.  But, reliably as ever, the music making was good.At the start of the second week of the Festival of Chichester, the Chichester Singers produced their concert, which had been prepared so as to suit the Festival.  For those who have been attending the Singers’ concerts for some years, the programme was full of surprises.  There was no major work by a famous classical composer, but rather a number of pieces by contemporary musicians, the men of the choir had taken off their black dinner jackets and appeared in shirt sleeves, there was only one soloist and there was no orchestra.  But, reliably as ever, the music making

Read moreREVIEW: Feel the Spirit – 24th June 2017

REVIEW: Rachmaninov Vespers / Jongen Mass

For their latest concert, The Chichester Singers produced a programme with a variety of little-known works, most of which were based on instrumentation by organ and brass only. However, the first, and best known work was the totally unaccompanied set of choral pieces known as Rachmaninov’s Vespers. This presented a major challenge to the Singers, as not only was there no instrumental accompaniment to help them find their notes, but also the work was sung in Russian. The choir rose to the challenge admirably and delivered a fine performance of the work which evoked the feeling of Orthodox chants in a religious building. Despite the language, the sound in the Cathedral was decidedly English, and was dominated by the female voices, which were particularly sweet and clear. The basses sang manfully and produced very satisfying crescendos with their series of alleluias but lacked the sonorous sound of true Russian basses. On the other hand, a tenor in the choir (Martin Ridley) sang the short solo in the Nunc Dimittis in a splendidly Russian style.

Read moreREVIEW: Rachmaninov Vespers / Jongen Mass

REVIEW: Haydn – The Creation

On a bitterly cold evening in January, how wonderful to hear this dramatic retelling of the familiar Creation story with the The Chichester Singers and Southern Pro Musica, conducted by an inspirational Jonathan Willcocks.  The audience were warm with appreciation even if the air was freezing.  The infectious music of Haydn and his colourful instrumentation depicting God in the very act of creation was brought to life vividly by the excellent orchestra, disciplined chorus and professional soloists, Margaret Ravalde, Thobela Ntshanyana and Kieran Rayner.

Read moreREVIEW: Haydn – The Creation