Renaissance Singers setting a gold standard

A warm early summer evening, a warm Methodist welcome and a full, expectant audience: the scene is set for one of Eastbourne’s best-loved choirs, the Renaissance Singers.

Choral music is in fine health locally, with a choir for everyone. The larger choral societies will tackle a Gerontius or one of the big Requiems, while smaller groups can specialise or simply sing for pleasure and sociability. But after more than forty years, the Renaissance Singers still set a gold standard.

Renaissance are a best-kept secret. You need to be alert to catch their gigs, although the group’s loyal followers always seem to be in the know. This time, they are at Hailsham Methodist, but they will turn up several times a year at various churches and concert venues, always modest and sometimes rather underselling themselves, but never failing to delight audiences. Perfectly English and none the worse for that. (I hesitate to mention the heavenly selection of home-made cake, for we reviewers attend only for purely intellectual motives...)

Longevity and a remarkable depth of musical experience are key. Three of the choir’s dozen members, Graham Rowsell, Jan Purcell and current director Shirley Barrell were members almost from the very beginning in the mid-1970s, and the turnover of singers is remarkably low. As a result, there is a blend and balance, an intuitive understanding of each other’s voices, which creates a unique Renaissance Singers sound.

The choir’s repertoire sprang originally from Renaissance motets and madrigals, and they can fill a cavernous cathedral with exquisite Byrd or Palestrina. This concert, as it happens, has a quite intimate English feel, but still everything is performed with assured musicianship and a perfectionist attention to detail.

There is a kind of musical courtesy at the focal point of their singing: no single part ever dominates. Charles Wood’s fluently woven harmonies open the evening in O Thou the Central Orb, and then follows a musical tour of the British Isles: Ar Hyd y Nos, the Skye Boat Song and Londonderry Air. Renaissance choose arrangements that work for them: never simplistic but seldom outlandish.

Margaret Rizza’s Prayer for Peace is delivered with sustained, reverent piano and impeccable tuning. Then Matyas Seiber’s Hungarian folk songs have vigour and a sense of fun, but they do sound a bit twee. Seiber is a kind of Bartok without the dissonance, but there are better Central European pieces out there.

By now, though, we are immersed in English choral delights . Elgar’s Torrents in Summer evokes a cloudburst over the Malvern Hills and Vaughan Williams’ Linden Lea is rich as a rustic orchard. There is time for a more modern Healey Willan piece with Jaqueline Sheridan’s pure, clear soprano solo - a reminder, which many amateur singers could note, that the soprano voice is so often at its best when unforced and shorn of fancy coloratura.

Then a surprise: a Jerome Kern number, The Way You Look Tonight, delicious as molten warm syrup, and a jazzy, loose-limbed Fly Me to the Moon. And to finish the evening, the choir comes home with a hallmark, sublimely reverent interpretation of Rheinberger’s six-part motet, Abendlied. “Stay with us, for soon it will be evening, and the day is spent.” Spent, but with the satisfaction of a splendid performance. By Kevin Anderson.