Heavenly skies for heavenly voices. That’s what we got on our train ride to Rotterdam, to hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge live in concert. A surprise birthday gift for my boyfriend 🙂 And as you can see, the dramatic late summer skies helped set the mood in advance.
King’s performed in one of the best concert halls in the Netherlands, De Doelen, which not only has great acoustics but looks splendid as well. Check out the artwork in the hallways and the sci-fi organ on stage ^^
But ofcourse we were here for the music. For both of us it was the first time to witness this world renowned choir in the flesh. Not in their natural habitat in Cambridge, but still. We were seated on row 5, which gave perfect view and proximity for listening.
I came with several questions to this concert and all of them have been answered. Firstly, how they would sound in this surroundings, which they are not very familiar with. Well, the answer is: great! It truly was a treat to be able to hear the voices in the space of this hall.
Another question I had was if they could make my heart beat faster for Palestrina. For some reason, Palestrina never got to me. I always think of his pieces as beautiful, but I don’t get a lot of feeling out of them. Would King’s be able to change my opinion? Well, they are! The first two pieces of the evening, Super flumina Babylonis and Stabat Mater, both a cappella, really moved me and also got me to the edge of my seat. The Stabat Mater in particular was exciting from start to finish.
Next up was an organ piece that I didn’t particularly like to be honest, also because of the unexpected sound of the organ which I found pretty strange.
It was interesting to look at the choristers who were listening. Generally they looked like they were given a lecture on some incredibly tedious subject. One boy though was moving his head along to the melody and playing along with his fingers, like he was listening to his favourite hit song ^^ I watched him a bit more from then on and he seemed very much into the notes, also when he wasn’t singing himself. It made me wonder who of the boys in the choir will later continue in music.
Full attention again for the next piece, a favourite of mine, They that go down to the sea in ships by Herbert Sumsion. This I know very well from the Roden Boys Choir so it gave a nice opportunity to compare the two choirs and their sounds. King’s is bigger, so has a fuller sound, especially in the full choir fortissimo parts. Director Stephen Cleobury also opted for a slower pace and an emphasis on colour rather than structure in the dynamics of the piece.
Already one piece left before the interval but it was a long one, The Wilderness by Samuel Wesley. It had hints of The Messiah to my ears and is a long adaptation of words from the prophet Isiah of the wilderness that will bloom. It starts off with a baritone solo that gets picked up by the altos, in a very gentle mood. Halfway through I started to think it was getting a little dull, when suddenly the basses woke everyone up with a thundering part, and fireworks started all round. One boy was so caught up in one of the closing chords near the end that his gaze drifted off all the way to the ceiling and he suddenly had to come back to earth to look at the director again ^^. Some of the young ones had big smiles of joy and relief on their faces as we applauded, and I think Stephen Cleobury himself too showed in his face signs of being very pleased with this performance.
In the interval we decided to get something to drink and ended up in a huge line-up. Turned out it was for free coffee and tea, but we wanted Coke and red wine, so we scooted off to another bar nearby where there was hardly anyone waiting in line ^^
As the bell sounded for round two, we finished our drinks and got back to our seats. The first two pieces were again a cappella, and again both by one composer, this time Thomas Tallis. The first one, In iejunio et fletu, was nice but didn’t do much for me, but the second one was the most amazing piece of the evening for me: De lamentatione Jeremiae part 1, sung by only the men.
It was as if the music opened itself up for me. I had heard the piece before, in a recording by the Tallis Scholars, but hearing it sung in front of me, I could really feel what Tallis had wanted to convey in his composition. And that was deeply moving. The basses providing sombre shadows, the altos and tenors full of melancholy and sorrow. Just exquisite. This music fit the King’s men like a glove. Their controlled temperament, the blending of voices… wow.
This and the Palestrina pieces made me think how important it is to realise that this music was written for performance in a certain space by a certain group of performers. We’re so used to recorded music, but tonight I really found out that some music you can only fully experience sung in front of you in great acoustics by great performers. Recordings only give you an idea of how certain music was meant to sound, but it can never fully replace the experience it was intended for.
In hindsight it was telling that the piece that impressed me most excluded the trebles. Overall, the men shone the most and I have to say the King’s trebles kind of disappointed me. When they had to sing mild and elegant, like in the Wesley piece, they were great, but when they had to deliver more gusto and focus, they held back, to my ears and taste at least (and it was as if after the interval Stephen Cleobury had to work harder to get them to deliver the force he was looking for). Perhaps it was the tension and fatigue that went with the concert setting, who knows. Or maybe I already know so many powerhouse trebles, I’m a little hard to impress ^^
But really, the men shone the most. There were three altos that I just couldn’t tell apart, it was as if they were singing with one voice. King’s is champion in this traditional British style of singing and apart from matters of taste, it’s something to respect and admire when you have managed to uphold such a tradition. In the train ride back, my boyfriend and I discussed this and I said, if you want to know how a piece was meant to sound, find a King’s performance. There, you will find no frills or fancies, but the most solid classic interpretation of a choral piece.
Following the sublime Lamentationes was a very florid, jumpy organ piece, highly contrasting the solemnity of what we just heard. In fact, I often had to re-tune my ears during the concert since it was such a varied programme in styles and eras. By the way, I quite liked this organ piece but I’ve no idea by who it was or what it was called, since there was no concert programme, only a brochure of the entire Gergiev festival that this concert was a part of, which only had the words of the songs, not the names of the instrumental works.
Howells next, with his setting of Psalm 42, Like as the hart. A dark but subtle piece, balancing between awe and sorrow. Very longing. The trebles let me down in this one, but the final part was beautiful. In general, King’s closing chords are just amazing. Often very long, in keeping with the rather slow tempo that Cleobury adopts, and beautifully sustained. Marvelous.
Like I said it was a varied night. After the introverted longing of Howells came the full-on power dynamics of Elgar‘s Give unto the Lord, that was just riveting. Everyone sang to their best, and it sounded just like it deserved, boisterous, flaming, and wonderfully gentle in the calm parts. I didn’t realise how much I love this piece (and how well I know it, as I was practically playbacking!) until now. Wow.
A standing ovation followed, and we were even treated to an encore. Stephen Cleobury turned to the audience and said: ‘I have tried very hard to choose pieces that were in keeping with the festival’s theme of sea and water. This last piece is by William Walton, called Drop, drop, slow tears [laughter from the audience]. It was written when Walton was only fifteen years old. Not much older than some of the choristers on the platform this evenig’. A round of applause followed for those hard-working talented kids 🙂 (hey, despite my criticism, they’re still heroes to me :))
And I must say, it was a great choice for an encore. I had never heard it, but fell in love with it immediately. It got me the way a pop song can get you on a first listen. Apart from this immediate charm, it has some in-your-face dissonances and nice musical tricks, like when they sang a word forte and immediately softer, a detail that made me think: wow, what amazing breath control, and so tight! Often an encore is sung without any of the previous tension that you have during the official part of a concert, and I could really hear that ease and relief in the way they performed this piece. Too bad it was a short one and this wonderful choral experience was already over.
As it was already late we didn’t stay for the signing session but I’m sure other Dutch choral fans, young and old (we weren’t the youngest ones present!) gave them a very warm reception. It was a great night, and a great opportunity to witness a wide range of King’s qualities. In the meantime we already have plans to attend a concert of their historic ‘rivals’ from St. John’s College. For now, it’s time to savour the memories of this great King’s concert, and I hope they do too.