Masterly Singing by St George’s Singers in Bach and Will Todd Premiere

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Will Todd: Eleanor Garside  (soprano), Heather Ireson (Mezzo-soprano), Thomas Morss (tenor), Matthew Kellett (baritone), St George’s Singers, Northern Baroque / Neil Taylor (conductor),  The Encompass Trio [Liam Waddle (piano, Paul Wheatley (bass), Phil Steventon (drum kit)], Concert Hall, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 15.12.2013.(RJF)

Bach, Christmas Oratorio BWV 248
Will Todd (b. 1970), Footprints (world premiere)

Bach’s celebratory Christmas Oratorio, composed in Leipzig for the Christmas season of 1735 was originally written in six parts, or cantatas, each being intended for performance on one of the major feast days of the Christmas period. The performances were shared between two churches, St Nicholas and St Thomas. The composer’s usual practice in such cantatas was of following the content of the Gospel reading for that day. However, had he followed the Lutheran calendar strictly other sequences would have caused complications. In the event, Bach reworked the timetable. In this performance the six cantatas were condensed to three. Part 1 comprising Jauchzet, frohlocket (Rejoice, exult), and part 2, Und es waren Hirten (And three were shepherds) being for Christmas day and the day following, and which were performed before the interval, with part 3, Herrscherdes Himmels (Ruler of Heaven), the cantata for the third day of Christmas, following after. Between the interval and part three, the audience heard the World Premiere of Will Todd’s Footprints, commissioned by St Georges following a bequest from Beryl Pearn a former member of the choir and in whose memory the concert was given.

The St. George’s Singers were founded in 1956. They carry the name of the founding church in Poynton, a large village about fifteen miles to the south of Manchester. I first heard them in a performance of Elijah and then in a series of Bach’s great choral masterpieces the St Matthew Passion (see review), B Minor Mass (see review) and St. John Passion, the latter together with the Manchester Camerata conducted by Nicholas Kramer (see review). All were performed at Manchester’s premiere concert venue, The Bridgewater Hall, home to the Hallé orchestra, and accompanied by internationally renowned soloists. The venue and those accompanying singers confirmed my early impression that this choir could stand alongside the one supported and performing with the Hallé Orchestra.

In between those great Bach choral works, and germane to this concert, the choir put on an adventurous programme alongside RNCM’s Jazz Collective and Tina May and including Will Todd’s jazz Mass in Blue (se review). This concert can be seen as a natural evolution in St George’s recent history with the capacity to move between significantly different genres. The choir numbers nearly one hundred, and over eighty were singing in this concert including eleven who have followed the strict discipline of regular attendance at rehearsal for over twenty years, a serious commitment paralleled by their attendance on foreign tours and the like. Unusually, the four parts of the chorus were scattered, that is mixed rather than as distinct sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. I have to say in this hall it worked well. I expressed my appreciation of the superb articulation exhibited by the choir in their performance of Messiah in the beautiful, but highly reverberant Gorton Monastery (see review).

With its encompassing brick walls, the RNCM Concert Hall also presents significant acoustic challenges for a large choir. After only a few minutes, they and Neil Taylor, under whose experienced hands and direction they continue to develop, had mastered the acoustic, with their superb articulation of words coming over as clear as a bell. Impressive too was the control exerted by the conductor in respect of pace and coordination, particularly with his young soloists. Whilst some contemporary international singers are complaining about some of Europe’s leading orchestras upping the pitch from the standard A=440 to add brightness to the tone, in this concert the four soloists, including those trained in opera, had to accommodate to a lowering to A=415, the standard for the period and superbly maintained by the Northern Baroque and their leader. As an opera reviewer mainly I was intrigued as to the effect on the timbre of the soloists voices. All met any challenges with aplomb albeit causing me momentarily confusion. I am not a singer and I was particularly intrigued by the timbre of the baritone in his opening recitative. With the true baritone role of Schaunard in Puccini’s La Boheme, with its operatic tessitura in his CV, Matthew Kellett looked too small for his resonant bass like tones (basses are usually six foot at least). No matter, his sonority and clarity, along with expressiveness, were a plus in the performance. Outstanding in tone and clarity as well as expressiveness was mezzo Heather Ireson in her opening recitative and aria Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam (Now my dearest bridegroom) and the aria immediately following. She made a notable contribution at every opportunity Bach provided. Eleanor Garside’s silvery soprano and smooth legato shone brightly in the opening duet with the Evangelist (No.4) and Chorale (No 7 in part 1), entitled Er ist auf kommen arm (He has come on earth in poverty) and later. As the Evangelist the tenor Thomas Morss was gentle and careful in his approach bringing clarity to his words.

To move from Bach to Will Todd’s contemporary Footprints hardly seemed a challenge to St. George’s skills, I guess their previous experience with his Jazz Mass helped. Born in 1970, Will Todd is quite prolific in his compositions often composing for the musical theatre and choral forces. He has worked with the Hallé Orchestra (who have recorded his oratorio Saint Cuthbert) and also with The Sixteen, the BBC Singers and smaller opera companies. His opera The Blackened Man, won first prize at the 2002 International Verdi Competition and was performed at the Buxton Festival in 2004. More recently, his choral anthem The Call of Wisdom was sung in St Paul’s Cathedral at the Diamond Jubilee Thanksgiving Service. Will plays piano in his own jazz ensemble and which features his wife, singer Bethany Halliday. Their recent appearances have included a performance at President Obama’s inauguration ceremony earlier this year.

The programme notes explain that Todd’s three movement choral suite Footprints takes its inspiration from Mary Stevenson’s poem Footprints in the Sand. This piece, in three parts, is very different to his Jazz Mass with really only part three, entitled Sun and Moon, being the most nearly related to the jazz idiom. The composer writes that he always attempts to write intense moments and beautiful singing lines of music. Interspersed as it was between the second and third parts of the Bach, immediately after the interval, I was amazed at the manner St George’s moved between the different challenges of the two works, leaving me more astounded than ever at their skill and versatility. The Compass Trio, comprising students at RNCM playing piano, double bass and drums accompanied the piece,

Robert J Farr

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