I’ve long admired the work of Ralph Allwood’s Rodolfus Choir,
an elite group of singers aged between 16 and 25, founded in
1983. Its membership is drawn from past and present members
of the annual Eton College Choral Course. I’ve experienced them
in a variety of music but this is the largest work in which
I’ve heard them. They could scarcely have been set a sterner
The choir, which on this recording numbers fourteen sopranos, eight altos – male and female – ten tenors and ten basses, made this recording after a couple of concert performances in the summer of 2009. One of these was given in the glorious setting of Tewkesbury Abbey, as part of the 2009 Three Choirs Festival. It was favourably reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by my colleague, Roger Jones. At least one of the present soloists, Ben Johnson, took part in that performance.
I enjoyed the recording very much. Inevitably, since the choir is made up of young singers it lacks some of the tonal depth, especially in the tenors and basses, that one gets with choirs that contain more mature voices. However, in compensation, there’s a freshness and a lightness about the singing that exerts its own very strong appeal. Allwood comments in the booklet that most of the choir hadn’t previously sung the work. I hope I’m not imagining it but the performance does seem to have a sense of joy and excitement about it that suggests enthusiastic discovery.
The singers are helped, I’m sure, by Allwood’s way with the work. He eschews heaviness and though the music never sounds unduly hasty he keeps it moving forward at lively speeds. So much of Bach’s music is founded in dance and the listener is reminded of that here. With crisp support from the members of the Southern Sinfonia, the music is always engaging and energetic. Furthermore, one notices time and again how these young, confident singers have been trained to produce clear, light textures. This means that the various strands of Bach’s fugal four- and five-part writing come across cleanly and naturally. This is a trait of the performance that’s in evidence right from the start in Kyrie I. The agile and pure voices of the soprano section offer consistent pleasure throughout.
There’s a good solo team on parade too. Usually in this work, five soloists means two sopranos – or a soprano and a mezzo – have been engaged but here it’s two basses. That’s not a bad decision for the tessitura of the two bass solos is very different and Colin Campbell’s firmness is well suited to the demanding line of ‘Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus’. The second bass aria, ‘Et in Spiritu Sancto’, lies rather higher and the Swedish bass, Håkan Vramsmo, has the right timbre and, with his slightly lighter, more baritonal voice, is able to impart a welcome lilt and lift to the music.
Despite what it says in the track-listing, ‘Laudamus Te’ is
sung by the alto/Counter Tenor. This is the South African, Clint
van der Linde, himself a Rodolfus alumnus. He has a round, quite
rich timbre and he does this movement, and his other solos,
admirably. Soprano Sophie Bevan also makes a favourable impression,
blending well both with van der Linde in ‘Christe Eleison’ and,
even more successfully, with Ben Johnson in ‘Domine Deus.’ Johnson
himself contributes a very good account of the Benedictus. He
has a sweet tone and is at ease with the tessitura.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable and highly commendable account of Bach’s Missa, which has given me great pleasure and to which I know I’ll return. It may not dislodge the leading professional choir recommendations – such as the Monteverdi Choir – but that’s not the point. It’s a very worthwhile and commendable performance in its own right and if some forty young singers can produce a recorded account of the B Minor Mass of this quality then the future for British choral music is bright indeed.