Late in the evening on Friday June 17th 2016, pianist Paul Plummer was sitting quietly in London contemplating a peaceful weekend, when the phone rang. Less than 24 hours later he was in St Mary’s Church in Ambleside playing a key role in an enthralling concert of Stravinsky and Jonathan Dove as guest, and saviour, of the Pro Nobis singers.
Plummer’s ride to the rescue was caused by the sudden illness of half of the renowned LongfordBrown two-piano duo, James Longford. It was a programme to challenge the most talented of pianists. But Plummer leapt into the breach and played as if he’d been practising for days, forming a solid partnership with Lindy Tennant-Brown.
The two Steinways were the centrepiece of a line-up which included the astonishingly powerful counter-tenor Iestyn Morris, the charming young girls of Poco Amabile, and of course Pro Nobis.
This was Director Clive Walkley’s most theatrical programme for years, with narrative and drama aplenty. It was also enjoyably varied. Pro Nobis is well-known for combining 16th/17th century music, mainly Spanish and Italian, with works by contemporary religious composers.
But this programme reached out far beyond its core fanbase and had broad appeal for newcomers and experienced concert-goers alike. The unusual sound of two pianos was particularly exciting.
The climax of the concert was Dove’s 2015 cantata Arion and the Dolphin which tells the story from Greek legend of a star singer who is rescued from a watery grave by a dolphin. This is a work which deserves to become a concert standard as the music complements the story perfectly, illustrating beauty, villainy, drama and an almost operatic climax when Arion and the dolphin are elevated to the heavens as constellations.
Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is a more challenging listen, but the arrangement for two pianos – the original is for orchestra – works surprisingly well with great contrasts in tone and some surprisingly lyrical moments. It was a good evening for getting to know a composer whose very name might intimidate some potential listeners, as his Tango for two pianos also came across as witty and and cheerful.
The other highlight of a sunny June evening was Arvo Part whose works always make good concert performances, and his Da Pacem Domine was no exception.
“From Darkness to Light” Palm Sunday 2015
The concert given by the Pro Nobis Singers on Palm Sunday at St Mark’s Church, Natland produced some of the finest choral singing I have heard in the region.
Conductor Clive Walkley had assembled a cleverly constructed programme “From darkness to Light”, ranging from 16th Century motets to recent works, including his own Missa Brevis.
Brahms was the linchpin, a great motet beginning each half, with “How Lovely” from the Requiem forming a happy end to a concert that had explored great contrasts of emotion, from sadness and despair to joy and serenity.
The Brahms motets, “Warum” and “Geistliches Lied” demonstrated the considerable range and palette of the choir, from full-blooded and sonorous to gentle, softer colours – always well balanced and with excellent if not perfect enunciation of the german texts.
The earlier works, from England, Spain and Italy, also produced a wide dynamic range, rhythmic vitality when demanded and great feeling for the mood of the texts. I would have liked to hear a more focused tone from the lower voices to complement the excellent sopranos; and there was, just occasionally some slightly ragged ensemble.
Of the more recent works, a fine motet by Humphrey Clucas and a superb anthem by Herbert Sumsion were most effective. Clive’s own Missa Brevis, largely diatonic and approachable extended the singers to their limits (just!); here is a composition worthy of wider hearing, each movement with its own identity and well contrasted in its use of compositional devices.
The least successful offering, unfortunately also the most familiar was the last, Brahms’ “How Lovely”, which after a false start never quite settled and there were uncomfortable moments.
We also heard two groups of organ solos played by Hugh Davies; appropriate chorale preludes by Bach and Brahms and a fugue on BACH by Schumann bringing the best out of a small but telling instrument.
The Splendours of Venice - Pro Nobis Singers
Kendal Parish Church, June 21st 2014
This 45th Anniversary Concert of sacred music by Monteverdi was an unmissable event for Pro Nobis's many followers. Clive Walkley's choir have given Kendal the chance to hear much wonderful but rarely performed music, specialising in Renaissance, Baroque and Contemporary works. New commissions have featured in their programmes, and they have brought to Kendal distinguished exponents of period instruments, and 'Historically Informed' performance.
This very ambitious programme was no exception. The star guest was the choir's President, Evelyn Tubb, who gave beautifully expressive performances of florid solo motets between the larger-scale works with choir. She was joined in duets by Deborah Catterall, whose slightly warmer sound complemented Evelyn's perfectly. The forces also included four professional male soloists, soloists from the choir, plus two violins, bass viol, archlute, organ and four sackbuts - or in Italian, trombone.
Bringing all these together in works like the eight-part Magnificat from 1640 or the 1641 seven-part Gloria with their frequent and abrupt changes of texture and tempo, occasionally produced 'rough edges', inevitable with limited rehearsal time, but there were magnificent sounds, and the choir sang with tight rhythms and their trademark superb intonation.
Expressively, they were probably at their best in the exquisite small-scale 'Adoramus te, Christe', but it is to the credit of this choir that one judges them entirely by professional standards.
Music from the Golden Age of Spain and the New World - Pro Nobis Singers with QuintEssential, St. Thomas's Church, Kendal, 16th June 2012
It felt rather incongruous going into the plain and very Protestant St. Thomas’s Church on a cool, damp English June evening to hear this passionately Catholic music from 16th century Spain and Central America. Perhaps it should really be heard in the dark spaces of a Spanish cathedral, glittering with gold, the air thick with incense. However, St. Thomas’s worked remarkably well. The resonant acoustic enhanced the sound beautifully, and the sound was magnificent, particularly in the final piece, Guerrero’s ‘Duo Seraphim’ in twelve parts arranged in three choirs.
In this piece, as in most of their items, Pro Nobis were joined by the cornett and sackbut ensemble QuintEssential, who also played some instrumental pieces which displayed their impressive mastery of these beautiful but difficult instruments.
The choir’s conductor Clive Walkley has made a special study of Juan Esquivel, and two hymns by Esquivel alternated verses of unaccompanied unison singing - to popular-sounding tunes - with complex polyphony supported by the instruments. Here Pro Nobis showed their superb tuning and ensemble, exactly together in the unisons, and perfectly in tune every time the instruments came in.
Can a choir of modern English people quite match the devotional fervour in some of this music? If they tried, they might lose this choir’s technical precision. So perhaps the highlight of the concert was the more sober, but deeply moving ‘Versa est in luctum’ by Alonso Lobo, written for the funeral of Philip II. It was performed unaccompanied, and the beautifully blended, pure soprano sound was particularly impressive.
This was a rare opportunity to hear some great but neglected music, performed close to how it originally sounded, and to a standard easily comparable with many professional ensembles.
Michael Fields wrote of the Pro Nobis concert in August 2009:
This was a fine and wonderfully atmospheric concert. The choir sang very well - so well that it would be hard not to assume that they were professional - and they were expertly conducted by Clive Walkley. It was an interesting and varied programme, moving from sacred to secular, all the items of which contributed to the mood of a late summer evening - relaxed, contemplative, spiritual. My one criticism is that the acoustics of the church did not lend themselves to the choir's retreat to the altar for some items - necessitated by the need to have visual contact with the organist, but unfortunate musically, as the balance with the organ was not so good in that position. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the evening enormously, and was glad to have made the effort to come from Keswick to hear this concert.
Ann Bond, reviewing Dido and Aeneas for which Pro Nobis provided the chorus in August 2011 as part of The Lake District Summer Music Festival, wrote:
The chorus covered itself with glory. Kendal's Pro Nobis Singers, coached by Clive Walkley, sang with style and spirit, and acted in a variety of roles as if to the manner born. Without conductor or copy, they achieved remarkable unanimity.