Choir gives sacred sounds angelic tones

Music Column

April 15, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

With a lineage going back more than 550 years to the reign of Henry VI, the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, enjoys a sterling reputation for tonal beauty and technical polish. The current roster of boys and young men, led with impeccable taste by Stephen Cleobury, lived up to that reputation before a capacity crowd of 1,600 Sunday evening at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. People started arriving more than two hours early for the event, quite a testament to the choir's appeal.

Presented, in a rare off-campus venture, by the Shriver Hall Concert Series, the ensemble explored repertoire that touched on various time periods and styles of sacred music. Baroque items inspired great character and sensitivity from the singers. Rapid shifts of dynamics in Bach's motet Lobet den Herrn were masterfully achieved, and contrapuntal lines in works by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Tomkins flowed seamlessly.

But, for me, the 20th-century fare produced particularly powerful results, nowhere more so than in Britten's Antiphon. Cleobury ensured that the music's ultimate point registered richly. In the closing line about making "two folds one," the older choristers repeated the word "two" through a series of dark, strongly voiced chords, as the angelic-sounding boys calmly intoned the word "one" with a magical purity. When all the voices finally arrived at the same calm center to sing "one" together, the effect was transfixing.

Poulenc's Quatre motets pour en temps de penitence from the 1930s registered strongly (had the composer lived in a more recent era, he would surely have discarded a line of text reflecting a now-rejected view of Jews and the death of Jesus). Pablo Casal's gentle O vos omnes, from the same decade, inspired a subtly shaded performance. Vaughn Williams' Lord, thou hast been our refuge was delivered with remarkable expressive warmth.

Organists Peter Stevens and Tom Kimber shared accompaniment duties with admirable finesse; each also shone in solo works that served an interlude function on each half of the concert.

The choir's encore, Walton's Set me as a seal, proved to be unusually and deeply affecting.

Skillful pianist

Alexander Kobrin, the Russian pianist who took the gold at the 2005 Van Cliburn Competition, breezed through Baltimore - and a Beethoven-Chopin program - Sunday at a packed Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills. The free recital, another generous gift to the music community from the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust, reaffirmed the great technical fluency I observed from Kobrin during the Cliburn finals, but left me somewhat less impressed when it came to his stylistic and interpretive matters. (I wasn't too keen on the many restless and cell phone-ridden members of the audience, either.)

A noisy, graceless account of Beethoven's G major Rondo suggested a pianist focused on speed and volume, rather than communication. The outer movements of that composer's Tempest Sonata likewise suffered somewhat from overly rushed and thunderous blasts of keyboard display, but Korbin's spaciously paced and eloquently phrased approach to the slow movement unlocked its grave beauty. That was masterful piano-playing.

Kobrin, who is not yet out of his 20s, maintained a dry-eyed demeanor when he turned to Chopin, avoiding anything strikingly individualistic in the shaping of line or rhythmic pulse, and he continued to push things along when given half a chance. Still, there were elegant touches along the way, especially in a group of Impromptus. (I ducked out before the last work in order to catch the concert by the Choir of King's College.)

It will be interesting to see, and hear, how Kobrin's career unfolds.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

online

To read Tim Smith's review of Opere Vivente's gleefully naughty production of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, go to baltimore sun.com/criticalmass

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