Review: Quire Cleveland with Timothy Brown at Trinity Cathedral

In his extensive and chatty program notes, guest conductor Tim Brown noted that he chose his repertory for Quire Cleveland through something of a misunderstanding, but he went ahead with plans to “construct a program that would take Quire out of its more accustomed comfort zone, and into corners of liturgical music from the English choral canon that would carry us from the early 1500s up to the end of the 20th century”.

After a week of intensive rehearsals, the twenty voices of Quire showed off what they had learned from Tim Brown at Trinity Cathedral on Saturday evening (the program was to be repeated in Solon on Sunday afternooon). Moving both backward and forward in time from its usual base of repertory, Quire gave splendidly idiomatic performances of English music from the pre-Reformation to the present day.

Brown was formerly music director for Clare College, Cambridge, where he polished its mixed-voice chapel choir to a high lustre over a 30-year tenure. He is now a freelance conductor, and obviously a very fine one who can achieve remarkable results in a short period of time. Since high standards of choral singing have always been a hallmark of Quire Cleveland, Brown could concentrate on matters of tone production, vowels, diction and singing style which are almost proprietary to Anglican cathedral and chapel choirs in England, but which make amazing differences in projecting this repertory down the length of large, stone buildings.

A good case in point was the opening Le Roy Kyrie by John Taverner, sung mysteriously from the high altar steps at Trinity in alternation with beautifully shaped plainchant supplied by baritone José Gotera from the pulpit. All the strands of Taverner’s complex web of polyphony were distinct and clear even at the back of the nave.

Vitality and clarity also marked the Gloria from Taverner’s Westron Wynde Mass, for which Quire moved onto risers in the crossing. Turning “from extravagance to utter simplicity — one word to one note”, as Brown put it, Quire sang exquisite post-Reformation motets by Tallis (O nata lux) and Ford (whose Almighty God, who hast me brought was echoed by a semi-chorus tucked away in the side chapel).

Brown had structured his program in semi-liturgical style, something like “A Day in the Life” of an Anglian chorister, and by now we had come to Psalms. Brown had chosen four wide-ranging examples of English psalm setting beginning with the tender Anglican chant of Henry Walford Davies’ Psalm 121 (followed by its equally touching Requiem aeternum), and followed by Byrd’s busy and madrigalesque Laudibus in sanctis (Psalm 150), Lennox Berkeley’s astringent Judica me (Psalm 26) and Gibbons’ energetic eight-part O clap your hands together. Quire changed stylistic gears smoothly and did a particularly fine job of tuning and balancing the complex chords in the Berkeley.

After intermission, Quire mystically floated the Sanctus and merrily skipped through the Benedictus from Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor before turning to two “Motets during Communion”, Byrd’s somber Ave verum corpus and Bairstow’s almost Byzantine-sounding Let all mortal flesh keep silence. Brown kept the tempo moving on the Byrd and whipped the Bairstow up to a religious fervor (maybe a little too fast at the climax to let the delicious chords settle in).

Three standard issue — but no less ecstacy-producing — “Anthems at Evensong” ensued: Stanford’s amiably meandering, six-voice Beati quorum via, Purcell’s starkly colorful eight-voice Hear my prayer, and William Harris’ transcendent, double choir motet, Bring us, O Lord God, setting a yearning-for-eternity prayer by John Donne. Quire moved easily into the repertory of later Anglican centuries and had only the normal amount of trouble even the best choirs do with Harris’ enharmonic modulations.

Quire split in two and arranged its halves on the high altar steps and at the rear of the nave for alternating performances of two restrained, late evening anthems by John Sheppard and William Mundy. Then they came together again in the crossing for the true novelty of the evening.

Giles Swayne (born in 1946) teaches composition at Cambridge and apparently trusts that the deity has a sense of humor. His Missa brevissima is full of strange and wonderful vocal effects and repetitious religious chatterings and brought a quite serious evening to a light-hearted conclusion (and lightning didn’t strike!). Quire proved here that it can also take on avant-garde music to good effect.

For an encore, Tim Brown gave the appreciative, capacity crowd an early Tudor anthem by Christopher Tye — so early in the sequence of fiddlings with liturgical texts that even “Amen” was considered a second cousin to Latin and got replaced with “So be it”, dutifully rendered in lovely contrapuntal lines at the end.

Video still courtesy of Ross Duffin.