Featuring a programme of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music loosely centred around the theme of war, the Oxford debut of chamber choir Sansara, an exciting group of talented young singers, was an impressive affair. The great technical challenges of much of this repertoire, full of complex cross-rhythms and searing dissonances, were met with great confidence. There was an intense feeling of assured communication between conductor Benjamin Cunningham, junior organ scholar at Worcester College Chapel, and his singers. This showed itself particularly in the fluidity of phrasing achieved in Elgar’s They are at Rest and the care given to the conclusion of Francis Pott’s Lament.
Oxford, though, is saturated with choral groups who can demonstrate an impressive sound and precision of ensemble. In such a crowded scene, what made this concert stand out was the manner in which these skills were put to the service of considered interpretations of the repertoire at hand. The music was brought to life by the understanding and highlighting of its crucial expressive gestures. For example, the sforzando effect that marks the final cadence of William Walton’s A Litany was particularly striking. As well as an eye for such details, Sansara and Cunningham were also able to sculpt large-scale structures highly effectively. Particularly telling in this respect was Arvo Pärt’s 1980 setting of the psalm De profundis for male voices, organ and percussion, music that is typical of the Estonian composer’s sparse and meditative tintinnabuli style. This work enacts a gestational emergence de profundis (‘from the depths’). It was thus a fitting opening to the programme and one that posed interesting challenges in its gradual process of intensification. Aside from some moments of hesitancy in the exposed opening bars, this was an impressive performance. The sense of awe created by the powerful sound at the summit of Pärt’s unfolding process of emergence was facilitated by the disciplined restraint shown in preparing that climax.
The programme also featured two inventive new works commissioned by Sansara. The first of these was a setting of I Vow to Thee, My Country by Marco Galvani, an undergraduate student at Queen’s College who was also singing tenor in the concert. Galvani’s use of choral forces was imaginative, as in the use of repetitive droning figures in the inner voices with which the piece opened. Programmed alongside the Pärt, this work could be heard as tapping into a rich twentieth-century choral tradition in which one might also include the late John Tavener, that draws upon sparseness, repetition, and harmonic stasis to powerful effect. Cunningham writes in his programme notes that Galvani’s setting, ‘written in 2014 for Sansara, in this the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, sets the famous Cecil Rice poem in an almost other-worldly haze, and is imbued with a haunting nostalgia’. Nostalgia for what exactly?, one was left to wonder. To many of today’s listeners the notion of celebrating a patriotic love ‘that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best’, as Spring Rice’s poem puts it, might feel uncomfortable. To me, the ethereal, ritual qualities invoked by this kind of choral writing were a decisive turn away from the hymnic Gustav Holst setting with which these words are usually associated and with which any new setting is surely in dialogue. In this sense, the work seemed to reflect on the impossibility of returning to these early twentieth-century values and perhaps even their destructive power. There was indeed a ‘haunting’ sense of loss here in the growth of the afterworld ‘soul by soul’, but not one that could necessarily be reduced to simple ‘nostalgia’.
The other premiere on the programme was A Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester by Oliver Tarney, a composer based in the Hampshire area where Sansara was first formed. Tarney splits the singers into a main choir and a smaller semi-chorus, placed at the other end of the chapel in this performance. The fluidity of the relationship between the two groups showed a sense of dialogue, and even the possibility of congruence at the centre of the work framed by interruptions and fragmentation. As with the rest of the repertoire on the programme, Sansara overcame the potential pitfalls of this challenging writing with distinction.
Given the proficiency and musicality on display, it was a real pity that more attention was not paid to putting across text at times. The resonant acoustic of Worcester’s stunning chapel may have helped to emphasise the quality of sound produced by Sansara, but it certainly did not help with this issue of diction. Similarly, it was a shame that Tom Herring’s rich and dignified tone in the solo baritone part for Nigel Short and Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of The Dying Soldier was rather lost in the wash of sound produced by the rest of the choir in this venue. Another possible problem was the choice of a programme that consisted overwhelmingly of slow, spacious pieces. Although a reflective tone was obviously appropriate, a greater sense of variety would have been welcome. However, these problems of diction and homogeneity of mood were both addressed in Philip Moore’s Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, arguably the highlight of the concert. From the outset, with countertenor Alexander Chance’s excellent solos, there was a much clearer engagement with, and transmission of, the text. It is unfortunate that we had to wait until the end of the programme to hear the thrilling sense of dynamism and rhythmic attack which Sansara conveyed here.
The pressing contemporary relevance of exploring themes of war and conflict was emphasised by the bold choice of repertoire and especially the impressive new works on the programme, as well as the admirable decision to raise money for the Royal British Legion. These were fitting acknowledgements of the deeply tragic fact that our world today is still shaped by the legacies of previous conflicts, and the arrival and continuation of current ones.
For more information about Sansara and their forthcoming events, please visit their website.