Iffley Music Society

Excalibur Voices directed by Duncan Aspden

A Mother's love: music for Mary

Saturday September 27th 2014 in St. Mary's Church

How many singers does it take to make a choir?

An interesting question, and probably an unanswerable one. The hugely successful choir The Sixteen very often appears as a bigger group, and sometimes as a smaller one, but as the name suggests, 16 is a possible quorum - 4 voices to each vocal line (or 2 voices in the case of 8-part pieces). Anything fewer might be less than a choir... possibly?

Duncan Aspden's new group Excalibur Voices – and note that they don't use the word 'choir' – takes great care to match the number of singers, and the pieces they choose for the programme, to the venue, and that is exactly what they did for us last Saturday, and very cleverly too. Duncan chose a beautifully varied collection of pieces all relating to our patron saint, St. Mary the Virgin, and brought 12 singers, including the very fine soprano soloist Rebecca Lea who performed in the choral pieces as well as her solo numbers. He chose pieces whose clarity of texture worked well in the acoustic of the church, then added the different colours of harpsichord and organ, and then moved the performers around the building for different effects. What a treat.

The singers are all highly accomplished in their field, and they can switch from choral mode to solo mode from one moment to the next. The variety of the programme was partly down to its spanning several centuries of church music, but more to do with the new vocal texture for every piece. We had a single line of men's voices in the plainchant of Frescobaldi's Ave maris stella,interspersed with spiky organ interludes. We had two lines of women's voices delivering Patrick Hadley's lovely I sing of a maiden – and how good to hear the women's voices given full rein and not required to imitate boy trebles, as is too often the case! We had five solo voices in the seldom heard O maria mater gratiae by Crivelli, and the opening Magnificat by Buxtehude (or possibly not by Buxtehude, as Duncan explained) was a veritable showcase of choral sections interrupted by florid solo lines.

There were just two pieces – by Victoria and Palestrina – in which Excalibur Voices sang as an unaccompanied choir and demonstrated perfectly the pure blended sound we expect of a choir. They were helped by Duncan Aspden's direction, which is always fluid and supple, though with a tendency to drive the pulse a little energetically even in meditative pieces such as these two. Inevitably one could hear individual voices in the texture (and inevitably they were the tenors!) but for me Excalibur passed the choir test. Twelve is indeed a choir. Where weaknesses showed, it was in the more complex pieces with many solo lines, and for me the least successful piece was the Litanie della beata Vergine by Monteverdi. I felt that the complexity of the piece, the contrasts, and the highly virtuoso solo lines, were a bit beyond the performers, and that Monteverdi probably needed something closer to St Mark's Basilica in Venice to do his piece justice.

Soprano soloist Rebecca Lea sang not one, nor two, but three Ave Marias, which must be a rare event even in the life of a soprano. The Gounod and Schubert versions she delivered with beautiful restraint, but the version by Bruch, not well-known, was the best of the three, her voice soaring thrillingly over the rich choral and organ accompaniment. These sumptuous Romantic sounds showed a totally different side of Excalibur Voices. Accompaniments, from Duncan and from our very own Janet Low on the organ when she was not singing, were excellent throughout.

In Oxford we are spoilt when it comes to choral music – there is so much to be heard at every level up to the highest. I feel sure that Excalibur Voices has a future in this competitive world, as they show great adaptability, warmth, and character in addition to their technical competence. We are also spoilt when it comes to venues for church music. Luckily we have a truly lovely one in Iffley, and it was a pleasure to see and hear it being put to such good use.