Creating a skilful sound in their very first year, Seraphim is an exciting group of female singers recently formed in East Anglia. Conducted by Vetta Wise, their well-attended concert at Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh (part of the 2014 Halesworth Arts Festival) saw Seraphim take on a wide range of different styles and periods of choral music. The interesting, ambitious programme took us from traditional 16th-Century ecclesiastical music right up to the modern day.
An unaccompanied Morning Hymn by Orlando di Lasso, sung with warm tones from the rear of the church, opened the concert. With the choir out of sight, it was a chance for the audience to admire the magnificent interior of Blythburgh Church (and its famous roof angels) as music magically filled the space. Blythburgh has stunning acoustics, and Seraphim used them confidently. Holst’s Hymn to Vena, following next, contained some unusual harmonies in its harp accompaniment: while a robustly modern listen at times, Holst’s evocation of the Hindu goddess of Dawn made a nice contrast to the traditional tone set by the opening piece.
The contrasts continued as we returned to tradition with Schubert’s Mille Cherubini, then left it again for Peter Klatzow’s modern Three Carols in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Klatzow’s three pieces, O Queen of Heaven, I Saw a Maiden and The Angel Gabriel, are playfully angular, giving a sprightly update to the Christmas carol. Full of different textures, with plenty of internal contrast amongst the three, they made a fascinating listen. An organ solo followed: Jehan Alain’s Litanies, played by Ben Giddens.
The musical highlight of the whole concert, for me, was Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire. Pleasingly powerful in their sound, Seraphim gave Poulenc a compellingly intense delivery which brought out the dark, yearning quality of the piece, composed after the violent death (in a car crash) of a friend of Poulenc’s, which drew him to visit the Black Madonna of Rocamadour, and ultimately return to his Catholic faith and find a new profundity in his music. After our rapturous wracking by Poulenc, Fauré’s Tantum Ergo felt rather comfortable – perhaps, even, a little pat. Just because these harmonies are easy to listen to does not mean they are easy to create, and here it did feel some pieces had received more rehearsal attention than others. The Poulenc had set a very high standard: an impressive indication of what the future may hold for Seraphim.
We were treated to a fabulous flute solo: Debussy’s Syrinx, played by Anna Noakes. Noakes’ clear relish for her instrument, and this piece, shone out in a performance which sparkled with energy and wit. Superbly handled, her flute evoked woods and fields, wildness, exoticism, innocence and guilt with casual grace.
The beautiful curling lines of Tavener’s Song for Athene came across well, though Seraphim do not have quite enough strength in their sound yet for the crucial golden moment of the piece. However, their lithe, pretty rendition of two songs from Johannes Brahms’ Vier Gesänge Op 17 (No. 2, Come Away, Death and No. 4, Death of Trenar) was imaginative and successful. The concert closed with the familiar, warm-toned Negro Spiritual Steal Away (arranged by Hugh Roberton).
Altogether, this was a treat of an afternoon: a beautiful and historic East Anglian church, packed to the gunnels with a large, enthusiastic audience, listening to a strong programme which had been put together with real care to showcase the developing talents of a very exciting group. Superb accompanists (Ben Giddens on organ, Andrew Durban on double bass, Brian Davis on harp and Anna Noakes on flute) gave the choir a wonderful base for their singing, as well as adding colours and textures of their own. It would have been useful to have the lyrics printed in full in the programme: not only is it fun to have something to follow, but as the Brahms was sung in German and the Poulenc in French, a translation would have been handy for many. With a reasonably assured sound reaching through their harmonies, Seraphim are not always quite locked on every note, but are already showing great promise, both accompanied and unaccompanied.
Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh
12 October 2014