BACH’S Magnificat was the opener for this December outing of SMS.
Of course, Bach goes with Christmas like turkey and tinsel, so it was a good choice, but despite David Halls’ steady hand the opening was a little ragged in brass tuning and some of the transitions between sections felt a bit untidy.
The ensemble feeling improved as the piece progressed, and there were some sweet and tranquil moments, such as Alison Hill’s first aria accompanied by oboe d'amore, the bass (Simon Gallear) and cello aria, and the countertenor (Andrew Stewart) aria accompanied by melodious flutes, which led into a beautiful trio for both the sopranos and tenor, with gorgeous melodic lines.
The piece finished with SMS chorus in rousing form with the sumptuous Gloria.
The rest of the concert was given over to Howard Blake’s Benedictus. This is a large-scale work for chorus, chamber choir, tenor soloist and narrator, as well as viola soloist to open and close the work.
The opening solo viola prelude (representing the novice monk), played with great skill and passion by Rosalind Ventris, was beautiful. The words of St Benedict were given by the narrator, before the first chorus entry starting with plainsonginspired settings before opening out into the rich palette of Blake’s more usual orchestration, which is very much in the English tradition of Vaughn Williams, Howells and Walton.
A lush and beautiful sound washing around the cathedral, with the hallmark glockenspiel ringing out on the top of the orchestral textures.
There was fantastic singing from the Chamber Choir and jewel-like sparse moments of harp and winds gently accompanying.
William Kendall (tenor) seemed to be having some problems and could have done with more power in the richer orchestrated sections. The balance and feel was better in the section for tenor and chamber choir only.
The last tenor and chorus number had a dramatic ending before we were regaled with the last ‘sermon’ and the closing chorus.
Finally, Rosalind Ventris gave the postlude on viola – this time standing on the soloists’ podium, and, as in her previous sections, the playing was fabulous.
Howard Blake was in the audience and took a deserved bow, but somehow the work seemed too disparate overall.
Perhaps with a passionate actor speaking Benedict’s words and a bravura tenor, the whole thing could work and hang together more coherently. But a brave attempt at a modern oratorio from SMS.