REVIEW: Unique choir is “simply in love with the music”

Renaissance Singers of Eastbourne SUS-170512-122557001
Renaissance Singers of Eastbourne SUS-170512-122557001

Does Christmas – secular and spiritual – begin too early? We often hear the complaint, but on Sunday at St John’s, Meads, the Renaissance Singers had their answer; an Advent Celebration.

Well, it was after all Advent Sunday, the first of the four which lead up to Christmas Day, and this much-loved Eastbourne choir had tried hard to compile a programme which reflected expectation and hope, as well as lullabies and stables.

And if the latter part of their Celebration did lapse into something closer to Bethlehem, their audience had hugely enjoyed the journey by then!

The Singers are probably unique among local choral groups. Formed over forty years ago as a group of just eight voices, they have grown to the relatively massed ranks of – on Sunday – fifteen singers, but they retain a commitment to intimate, small-scale performance which larger choirs cannot quite match.

Director Shirley Barrell, herself a singer from the ranks, never fails to bring a sense of enjoyment and relish to the music. Splendid as they looked at St John’s in their red and black, Renaissance are just as happy to be captured in the “civvies” in our photo above! Their repertoire is often demanding, but they are simply in love with the music.

Sunday’s quite lengthy programme overflowed with fine music, spanning the centuries from plainsong to contemporary, and weaving in some new delights alongside the familiar favourites. Most were unaccompanied, and in the very sympathetic space of St John’s Church, not a note was lost. Clarity, precision, impeccable tuning: what Renaissance have perfected is that knack of setting the music free.

Readings, too. Michael Barrell was the essence of a crusty Old Testament prophet with the well-loved words of Isaiah, and then transformed into a wryly humorous Betjeman, and Katherine Musson delivered a fascinating thought-provoking modern piece O Simplicitas.

Too many musical delights to list, but here are a few of this reviewer’s highlights. Mendelssohn’s little-performed How Lovely Are the Messengers was wonderfully light of foot, Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose had a reverent, seamless beauty, and Hymn to the Virgin, the early piece of Britten – written when the composer was only sixteen – had terrific energy and dynamics.

There was room for the traditional Once As I Remember, a little like a Bob Copper song but without the clump of boot or tankard, and for three wonderful pieces by Bob Chilcott – the last of them a breathtaking rendering of his Shepherd’s Carol, which simply transcended the moment and the space.

In a shameless piece of crowd-pleasing we finished with some John Rutter – without whom, these days, no Christmas recital is complete. Our musical journey may have begun with Advent, but if Rutter is in the repertoire, Christmas cannot be far away...Thank you, Renaissance Singers. A retiring collection raised £320 for Christian Aid. By Kevin Anderson.