United Kingdom A Ceremony of Carols: Sonoro [Nina Bennet, Rachel Chapman, Rebecca Lea, Jo Tomlinson (soprano) Jess Gillingwater, Clara Kanter, Ksynia Loeffler, Kate Symonds-Joy (alto)], Michael Higgins (piano), Gwenllian Llyr (harp), Neil Ferris (conductor), Kings Place, 18.12.2016. (CS)
Britten – A Ceremony of Carols Op.28
Holst – Ave Maria Op.9b
Roxanna Panufnik – Angels Sing!
James McCarthy – ‘Peaceful was the Night’ (world premiere)
Brian Chapple – ‘What child is this?’
Cecilia McDowall – Ave Maria
Patrick Hadley – ‘I sing of a maiden’
John Rutter –Dancing Day
This ‘ceremony’ of Christmas carols by Sonoro brought together old and new, as the best festive rituals should. The choir, founded in February 2016 by artistic directors Neil Ferris and Michael Higgins, was represented here at Kings Place by eight of its female professional choral singers, accompanied by pianist Higgins and harpist Gwenllian Llyr.
The choir professes to achieve a ‘rich and full sound … realised by allowing each singer to be free to use all of their voice, matched with careful blending, creating warmth and resonance.’ In the opening item of the concert, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (1942), I found this approach less than ideal, though. Composed on board the Axel Johnson as Britten and Pears returned to their homeland after a US sojourn of three years, the Ceremony was originally conceived for women’s voice and harp. And although by September 1942 Britten was referring to the carols in correspondence as being for ‘children’s voices’, it was the women’s Fleet Street Choir accompanied by harpist Gwendolen Mason and conducted by T. B. Lawrence, who gave the first performance on 5 December that year, in the Library of Norwich Castle.
In 1944, however, The Morriston Boys recorded A Ceremony of Carols for Decca. Britten wrote to Mary Behrend, in December 1943: ‘I think the little boys were enchanting—the occasional roughness was easily overweighed by their freshness & naivety—something very special.’ He later admired performances by the Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir, collaborated with the trebles of Westminster Cathedral Choir, and recorded the Ceremony with the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir in 1953. This latter recording, and Britten’s later predilection for boys’ voices generally, have impressed in our minds a particular vocal colour.
Omitting the framing Procession and Recession, which were added at a later date by Britten, Sonoro launched into a vibrant ‘Wolcum yole!’ in which the strong individual timbres of the voices resonated richly but did not blend. Perhaps harpist Gwenllian Llyr might have been more assertive; her playing was unfailingly sensitive, precise and considered, but a bit more presence might have helped to bind the voices together more satisfyingly. Conductor Neil Ferris was astute with regard to tempi: ‘There is no rose’ was fluently eloquent; ‘Balulalow’ bloomed beguilingly after the soprano solo; ‘As dew in Aprille’ swung jubilantly with an energy which carried into ‘This little Babe’ where the strumming tension of the harp and the crisply enunciated text created winning impetus. ‘That yongë child’ was an eerie duet for harp and alto solo, and Llyr created a similarly troubling ambience in the Interlude for harp, commencing with a heavenly ethereality before descending to sonorous earthly realms, then retreating once again to celestial perspectives. The strange dissonances of ‘In freezing winter night’ were true and centred – indeed, Sonoro’s intonation was superb throughout the performance – while the entwining voices of ‘Spring Carol’ were sweetly intimate. I’d have liked more consonants and accents in ‘Deo Gracias!’ but Ferris was, as ever, tasteful and poised.
Things settled into a surer groove thereafter. Gustav Holst’s unaccompanied Ave Maria (1900) was the composer’s first published piece, and was dedicated to his mother. Ferris had a good sense of the flow and swell of the contrapuntal lines but a touch more flexibility in the shaping of the individual phrases – to match the growing freedom of Holst’s use of dissonance – would not have gone amiss. There was a beautiful blend in the more homophonic sections, though, and the final cadence was – characteristically, as this recital was to confirm – meticulously executed and controlled.
Sonoro presented several modern carols to complement the traditional and familiar. Roxanna Panufnik’s Angels Sing! was commissioned by Ealing Symphony Orchestra in 2000 and composed for a children’s choir in the borough. Panufnik remarks that Ealing has a large Polish community, and so the four carols set are in their original language. One couldn’t help feeling that the youthful singers must have been taxed by both text and score. Here, ‘Jesus Christ is born’ (Narodził sie Jezus Chrystus) swung joyfully through the rhythmic transitions of snatches of familiar melody, the wry disparity between the low accompanying piano and higher, dancing vocal lines culminating in a tongue-in-cheek final cadence of neat brevity. ‘Sleep, little Jesus, sleep’ (Lulajze Jezunia) lilted sweetly, like a chromatically inflected ‘Away in a Manger’ with the occasional jazzy harmonic tinge. ‘Hail, little golden star’ (Witaj Gwiazdko Złota) was darker in hue, given direction first by a strong piano bass and, in a contrasting second section, by telling alto foundations as the piano switched roles to ‘twinkle’ celestially. The trilling piano and bell-like vocal pronouncements of ‘Triumphant King’ (Tryumfy Króla) satisfyingly recalled the rhetoric and majesty of Britten’s ‘Deo Gracias!’
James McCarthy’s ‘Peaceful was the Night’ received its premiere after the interval, and revealed itself as a charmingly wistful, gentle work, reminiscent of Finzi and Howells. Ferris did not quite marry the sopranos’ climactic peaks with the more poised contralto underpinnings, though. Brian Chapple’s ‘What child is this?’ (2010) drew a bright, open sound from Sonoro and Ferris created convincing forward momentum, using the carol’s triple-time lilt effectively. Another Ave Maria, this time Cecilia McDowall’s 2004 composition, followed. This carol, commissioned by Janet and Douglas Mackay for the City of Canterbury Chamber Choir, builds its structural materials meticulously but sensitively, and Ferris had the measure of the overtones, suspensions and repetitions which create impressive expressive stature. Conjuring a cathedral-like resonance at times, Sonoro faded deliciously to the quiet dissonances of the close. Patrick Hadley’s dulcet ‘I sing of a maiden’ (1936) looked back to the past – its text dating from the sixteenth century, the music reminiscent of Vaughan Williams; the two-part textures were beautifully crafted.
John Rutter’s Dancing Day – a companion piece to Britten’s Ceremony – brought the performance to a close. The harp Prelude lured us into relaxation with its folky inflections and rhythms – though, once again, I felt that Llyr could have been more exuberant. The voicing of the harp’s arguments was precise and crisp, however. The unisons of ‘Angelus ad virginem’ were light and soft; Britten’s Ceremony would have benefited from such relaxed lyricism. ‘A virgin most pure’ was simplicity incarnate, and Ferris shaped the strophic form expertly, making much of the re-entry of the harp. Again, I felt that Sonoro were a little too genteel in ‘Personent Hodie’ – where were the punchy textual rhythms? – but the vocal blend was admirable, and there was a fluent segue into the gentle rhetoric of the harp’s Interlude (did Michael Nyman draw on this in his score for The Piano?). In the ‘Coventry Carol’ Ferris explored varied relationships between the voice and harp, and brought drama to the second stanza, in octave unison; the stillness of the final verse was magical. ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’ was elegant rather than euphoric, and the concluding descant was tastefully executed.
This was a thoughtfully constructed and skilfully executed programme. A small proviso: excepting the splash of festive, sartorial crimson offered by Llyr and some of the singers, the Kings Place stage was rather sombre. While garish tinsel would undoubtedly have been out of place, might not some visual acknowledgement of the festive season softened the bare wood and blue gleam?