History of the Choir
The Gabrieli Choir is a Budapest-based amateur chamber choir that rehearses in English and Hungarian. It was re-formed in 2005 by Richard Sólyom to specialise in the performance of sacred works drawn from the music of Anglican cathedrals. Today, whilst this continues to be a part of its repertoire, it has broadened its scope to include “classical” works – sacred and secular – from all eras. The choir was previously led by its founder Richard Sólyom, and then by Alastair Cameron. In 2021, after a two-year break, the Gabrieli Choir resumed its activities, and now has two cooperating conductors: Zsófia Soós and Márk Szabó. The choir comprises around 20 to 25 singers, representing a wide variety of musical backgrounds. Some are trained musicians or music students, while others simply enjoy learning and performing new music in a chamber choir environment in their spare time. Rehearsals are held weekly, in English and Hungarian, from 5:30pm on Sunday evenings in the heart of Budapest, at the Scottish Presbyterian Church (Szent Columba skót presbiteriánus templom, Bp., VI., Vörösmarty u. 51.)
Since its re-formation in 2005, the Gabrieli Choir has performed about six to ten times a year chiefly in and around Budapest. Most of its engagements are concerts: the choir has performed to acclaim in some of the capital’s finest churches, including St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Matthias Church, St. Michael’s Church (Angolkisasszonyok) and St. Teresa’s Church (Terézváros), as well as in the Hungarian National Gallery, the Nádor Terem and the Central European University; it has twice taken part in the Művészetek Völgye (Valley of Arts) festival. Additionally, the choir occasionally sings in church services: having formed an agreeable rapport with St. Margaret’s Church, the home of Budapest’s resident Anglican community, it has sung Choral Evensong on four occasions (the one in Esztergom Basilica being broadcast by Hungarian Radio) and for the last six years has provided the main musical component for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols; it has also sung at a wedding and a funeral.
The choir regularly works with other ensembles and guest artists, often visiting from abroad, has recorded a CD, and undertaken a highly successful eight-day, four-concert tour of Northern England. English music is not widely performed in Budapest. Some established ensembles do perform works by composers such as Tallis and Purcell, but the Gabrieli Choir is unique in giving such an emphasis in its programming to English music of all ages. Thus, in common with performance practice in England (both in concerts and within the liturgy), old works are frequently juxtaposed with new; English pieces are contrasted with non-English pieces; and the whole is set the context of the Anglican tradition.
Over the years of its concert making the Gabrieli Choir has carved out for itself a unique and instantly recognizable place in the admittedly very busy and varied musical life that is Budapest. If much of the choir’s repertoire is new to audiences in Hungary, that is deliberately so, for central to the choir’s aims is a desire to broaden the general cultural experience – of both singers and audiences. The emphasis, succinctly, is on English music from the sixteenth century to the present day; yet this represents an enormous amount of music in greatly divergent styles, the vast majority of which hardly ever receives performance in Hungary. Whilst there are some very fine established ensembles regularly performing mostly larger scale works by composers such as Tallis, Purcell and Handel, the Gabrieli Choir is unique in giving such an emphasis in its programming to English sacred music of all ages.
So: what do we actually mean by the “repertoire of Anglican cathedrals”? Is it Gregorian chant? Is it Renaissance polyphony? Is it the music of Thomas Tallis and William Byrd? Or Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams? Or perhaps Benjamin Britten and Sir Michael Tippett? The glorious truth is it is all these things, and still more besides. So, in addition to masterpieces by all the aforementioned great names, there is the most wonderful music by composers whose names are barely known outside cathedral choir stalls and song schools, whose works are rarely, if ever, performed in concert halls. There are whole mass settings – some in English, some in Latin. There are extended anthems and exquisite motets, composed for every date and festival in the Church’s calendar. There are Canticles and Responses composed for that most beloved of Anglican services – Evensong. There is also Plainchant (the name by which Gregorian Chant is more usually known in England), Anglican Chant (basically chanting in harmony), and Anglican Hymnody (harmonized metrical chorales).
It is often said that Anglicanism is a “broad church.” The description is apt when considering its musical life too, for the repertoire of Anglican Cathedrals is by no means restricted to music by composers who are English, or even Anglican. Thus, in common with performance practice in England, in its concerts (and services) the Gabrieli Choir frequently juxtaposes old works with new; English pieces are contrasted with non-English ones; and the whole set in the context of the Anglican tradition.
Amongst the larger works the choir has sung, the following are worthy of special mention: the five-part Lamentations by Robert Whyte, a masterpiece of the English Renaissance; Bach’s St. John Passion, surely the acme of German baroque, and one of the best loved works in the entire choral repertoire; also Bach’s joyous if less well known Christmas Oratorio; from the Romantic period, Gabriel Fauré’s breathtaking Requiem; from the 20th century: the Requiem by Herbert Howells, an intensely personal creative reaction to the death of the composer’s only son; The Lamentation by Sir Edward Bairstow, an exquisite setting to Anglican Chant of words from the Old Testament book The Lamentations of Jeremiah; the powerfully emotive Four Lenten Motets by Francis Poulenc; László Lajtha’s rarely performed Mass op. 54; and from the 21st century (all first performances in Hungary): James Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass, a bold setting of the Latin Mass for choir, organ and soprano saxophone; Will Todd’s exuberant Mass in Blue for choir, soprano soloist and jazz trio; and, commissioned by the Gabrieli Choir, the Nunc Dimittis by Miklós Kocsár, who is arguably Hungary’s greatest living composer of choral music.
The Gabrieli Choir’s logo is an English stained glass window that has been a Sólyom family heirloom for at least three generations. Believed to originate from London, and measuring about fifteen inches in diameter, for many years it lay in a drawer, broken and far too fragile to display.
In 2004, however, it was restored by the renowned stained glass artist and restorer, Éva Mester. She observed from the window’s composition, materials and style that it is not all of one age: the majority of it is nineteenth century, but the central elements are mediæval. Now, with its long hibernation over, when the sun streams through it, one can marvel anew at its beauty and the craftsmanship of its makers. One can also imagine how much music it must silently have borne witness to down the centuries. Perhaps that’s why it seemed to suggest itself so readily as the design for the logo of the Gabrieli Choir.
Mention has been made that the Gabrieli Choir was re-formed in 2005, so it is only appropriate to add a footnote about what went before. The Gabrieli Choir was originally founded in 1992 by Anikó Sógor, under whose direction it enjoyed more than a decade of success performing in concerts and competitions, touring and making a CD. Its repertoire ranged from the sixteenth century Gabrieli uncle and nephew, Giovanni and Andrea, from whom the choir took its name, to the works of 20th century Hungarian composers. When, for family reasons, Anikó relinquished the directorship in 2004 the choir reached its natural end. Richárd Sólyom had been singing with Anikó since 2002, and unhesitatingly acknowledges that had it not been for Anikó’s friendly support and encouragement, it is unlikely he would have taken the bold step he did in re-establishing the Choir.
Text above migrated from our old website, written by Richard Sólyom.