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 Bach,  B Minor Mass:  St George’s Singers and soloists, Manchester Camerata orchestra, Neil Taylor (conductor)  The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. 22.6. 2008 (RJF)

Nancy Argenta, soprano
Tim Mead, countertenor
Rebecca Outram, soprano
Mark Wilde, tenor
Michael George, bass baritone

It was as recently as 2004 that I first experienced the work of St. George’s Singers when, after advice from a member of the group, I tore myself away from my usual lot of reviewing live and recorded opera performances. On that occasion the choir, together with a prestigious quartet of soloists were performing
Mendelssohn’s Elijah. It was a memorable evening, not merely for the quality of the solo singing, but more particularly for the contribution of St George’s.

My normal ventures outside the standard operatic fare rarely stretched beyond going to hear small choral groups and Verdi’s Requiem performed by the Hallé Orchestra and Choir and I was astounded by the quality of the
St. George’s Singers. The group was founded in 1956 and carries the name of the founding church in Poynton, to the south of Manchester. The Singers have an active membership in excess of one hundred and twenty. Entry is by audition and currently there are no vacancies for altos and a desperate need for tenors. The choir rehearse in the same church each Tuesday under their Musical Director Neil Taylor and this Bach Mass was his first Bridgewater assignment in charge. (My colleague Ray Walker reviewed the choir’s performance of Haydn’s Creation under his direction at the Royal Northern College of Music last year. See review).

By 1958 the choir had grown sufficiently to perform Bach’s St. John’s Passion. Their tradition of touring has taken in destinations such as Krakow, Helsinki, Tallin and, more recently, Dublin. In the best tradition of North of England amateur choirs, the members have to raise the money for such tours. Also, as with this concert, they are responsible for hiring of the Hall, employment of soloists and orchestra. In my assessment of their performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (see review) I suggested that the efforts, commitment and quality of
St. George’s Singers is such that they can stand at least alongside the Hallé Choir as the North West’s leading choral ensemble. Their singing in this performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass confirmed me in this view.

Their fame has spread more widely than the North West and earlier this year they
were invited to take part in a prestigious project involving Paul McCreesh, members of his Gabrieli Consort, in three performances of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, at Chester and Manchester Cathedrals and St George’s Chapel, Windsor. It is typical of the involvement and commitment of members of the group that despite the Windsor performance being only a day before their own of Rachmaninov’s Vespers at Gorton Monastery, they made the journey to Windsor. The performance at Gorton Monastery was so successful, demand for tickets far outstripping supply the first time round, that they will be repeating it in September.

Verdi’s Requiem is often cynically referred to as his best opera and  for the
Libera Me he used the music he had composed for a tribute to Rossini which didn’t  come to fruition at the time. Bach, operating in the Lutheran Protestant tradition wrote his Latin Mass towards the end of his life, drawing together music he had composed earlier. Scholars reckon they can determine the various musical traditions he passed through but, be that as it may, the final product of the B Minor Mass is widely recognised as presenting the Everest of challenges for choral performers. It was a challenge that St. George’s were well up to, singing with vibrancy, excellent articulation and a wealth of expression. If in the Kyrie and Gloria Neil Taylor did not quite get the balance between his female voices and his men quite right, the ladies being far too strong, it was more than well corrected in the Confiteor unum when even an undernourished tenor section (and which amateur choir has a full complement?) gave their all to tuneful and dramatic effect. When singing full out as in the Osanna in excelsis and elsewhere the choir were overwhelming in their dramatic effect, never losing tone, cohesion or meaningful expression.

For them it was another good night and for Neil Taylor a very successful initiation into one of St. George’s big nights at The Bridgewater. The Manchester Camerata orchestra played a full part in the success with notable contribution from the oboes in their support of the bass soloist in his second solo Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum.

When a choir set out their stall employing soloists of international reputation there is always a tingle of anticipation, which is not always fulfilled as it was here. The good news was the singing of the countertenor Tim Mead who stepped in at the last moment after Robin Blaze, his teacher, withdrew. Mead is well known in his own right and his performance was a tower of strength, with clear diction and a wide variety of colour in the Agnus Dei following on from his excellent rending of Et in unum where he was joined by the tall and elegant Rebecca Outram whose voice soared up into the Hall.

Regrettably, her co-soprano, Canadian Nancy Argenta, who came with the biggest reputation, was a serious disappointment. Her voice was tight and altogether restricted. She never once let it open up and soar in the same way as her soprano colleague. The bass Michael George sang with sonority and good diction in both Quoniam tu solis and Et in Spiritum Sanctum without really imposing himself. Mark Wilde was rather tight at the top of the voice and did not really convey the spirit of what he was singing.

The programme quoted
HansGeorg Nägeli’s view of Bach’s B Minor Mass as “The greatest musical work of art of all times and of all nations”.  Maybe. It is certainly one of the greatest of challenges that can face a professional choir let alone an amateur group. The fact that it is not often performed is a reflection of that reality, and when it is heard these days it is often with period instruments and a small professional choir. Neil Taylor and St. George’s are to be congratulated on tackling this highest of mountains and rising to the challenge so successfully. I won’t bet on another opportunity of hearing it performed again in the near future, and if I do I will be very fortunate if it is up to the standard of this performance.

Robert J Farr

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