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Passion and Polyphony
Sir James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Cecilia Virgo (2012) [4:40]
Children are a heritage of the Lord (2011) [5:07]
Miserere (2009) [12:17]
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Mass for Double Choir (1922) [25:37]
Sir James MacMILLAN
Hymn to the Blessed Sacrament (1980) [3:40]
Bring us, O Lord God (2009) [6:51]
Data est mihi omnis potestas (2007) [4:07]
O Radiant Dawn (2007) [4:06]
Emily Pailthorpe (oboe); Benjamin Roskams (viola);
Sonoro/Neil Ferris
rec. 2017, St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London. DD
Texts & translations included

Sonoro is a small choir comprising 20 professional singers (6/5/4/5). Founded as recently as 2016, this is their debut disc. Their conductor, Neil Ferris has a very strong pedigree, not least as current Chorus Director of the BBC Symphony Chorus.

I see from the booklet that the group’s name has been deliberately chosen: ‘Sonoro’ is the Italian word for ‘sonorous, voices that are rich and full’. Apparently, the ensemble’s starting point is that each singer will be able to use all of his or her voice, “matched with careful blending, creating warmth and resonance.” That intention comes across in some style in a piece such as MacMillan’s Cecilia Virgo, a piece for double SATB choir. It’s a celebration of the patron saint of music and, by extension, I suppose, a celebration of music itself. The writing is arresting and celebratory and Sonoro’s full-voiced approach is entirely appropriate.

Let no one think, though, that “full-voiced approach” is code for full-on. This group is just as capable of hushed and subtle singing. Thus, for instance, they do the subdued start of Children are a heritage of the Lord extremely well. The writing for SSATB choir is mainly chordal and as the piece evolves the chords become ever richer. Also, as the music progresses the top soprano line becomes ecstatically decorative. This is an inventive piece and it’s superbly performed.

All but one piece on the programme is a cappella. The exception is Hymn to the Blessed Sacrament which also is, by some distance, the earliest MacMillan piece here. I’m surprised by one aspect of this performance. According to the work information on the website of MacMillan’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, the piece is for SATB choir and organ. Here, however, the instrumental contribution comes from viola and oboe. I don’t know if this an arrangement specifically for this recording but it seems to work pretty well. The two instruments actually impart something of a pastoral feel. As we read in the notes, although written as early as 1980, this piece gives us a foretaste of the much later Strathclyde Motets.

Two of those motets, both for SATB choir, are included in the present programme. O Radiant Dawn, a setting in English of the so-called Great ‘O’ Vespers antiphon for 21 December, is one of MacMillan’s best-known shorter choral works. The music always puts me in mind of the Tallis anthem O nata lux. It’s very immediate in its appeal and the present performance is highly polished, bringing out all the beauty of the setting. Data est mihi omnis potestas is a Communion anthem for Ascension Day. The notes rightly draw attention to the technical accomplishment of the writing. However, the general listener can also appreciate the piece simply as an impressive, celebratory composition, the opening of which is arresting and powerful. I love the way that MacMillan frequently sets the word “Alleluia” to a descending figure in a series of triplets; it’s most effective.

Bring us, O Lord God, for SATB choir, sets the same text by John Donne that Sir William Harris used in his incomparable anthem of the same title. MacMillan’s soft opening breathes the same rarefied air as the Harris piece. His music is built round a descending cadence which crops up repeatedly throughout the piece. This is a deeply felt setting which Sonoro sing superbly. Their dynamic range and control is as impressive here as anywhere in the programme and their full-voice strategy is amply vindicated in the impassioned setting that begins at “but one equal light”. The concluding “Amen” sequence brings the piece to a deeply satisfying conclusion, especially in so finely calibrated a performance as this one.

The most substantial MacMillan piece included here is his setting of the Miserere. MacMillan’s liturgical choral music, though most definitely of our time, often draws respectfully and imaginatively on the music of the past – one need only think of O bone Jesu, his magnificent homage to the Scots composer, Robert Carver (c1485-1570) (review). The note about this piece includes the most memorable sentence I’ve ever read concerning MacMillan’s ability to draw on the past in a wholly contemporary way: “One senses a hand from the past raised in blessing on the present.” What a fine turn of phrase! In this piece the obvious precursor is Allegri and MacMillan doffs his cap to the Italian, not least in a couple of sections which are based on plainchant. In the first (5:05-6:42) the male and female voices alternate in chanting passages of the text A little later, three solo voices have chant-like passages but these develop into ornamented writing, perhaps recalling the way the top soprano in Allegri’s semi chorus soars off into the heights. Throughout the piece MacMillan constantly varies his choral textures so that what is a long text doesn’t feel like a long text to hear. It’s a magnificent setting and Sonoro really do it justice.

It's a most intriguing decision to pair MacMillan’s music with Frank Martin’s Mass for two four-part choirs. Though I greatly admire this piece it has struck me sometimes in the past as being somewhat austere. In the sense that Martin eschews flamboyance it is indeed austere. However, Sonoro’s exceptionally fine performance reminds us that there‘s an awful lot of colour in the writing. Martin’s fastidiously crafted textures are scrupulously voiced here but it’s not just the precision with which Sonoro sing the music that impresses; their engagement with the music is just as admirable. So, for instance, they bring out the mixture of simplicity and, later on, ardour that lies in the music of the Kyrie.

In the Gloria, I especially relished the hushed intensity with which they sing the passage that begins “Domine Deus, agnus Dei”. Just a few moments later there’s a palpable outburst of energy at “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”. Here, the choral sound is very full yet clarity is consistently maintained. The way in which the increasingly complex lines in the Sanctus come across is exemplary and then the rhythms at “Pleni sunt caeli” are expertly sprung so that the music truly dances along. Neil Ferris builds the Agnus Dei from a subdued start to the impassioned central climax, after which the music subsides to its serene conclusion. As I listened to this expert performance of Martin’s Mass I reflected that I can’t recall listening to a performance of it before with such sheer enjoyment.

I’ve not heard Sonoro before but, my goodness, this is a seriously impressive ensemble. Neil Ferris obtains very disciplined singing from the group but the discipline is anything but sterile. Rather, the discipline forms the framework on which deeply committed, often impassioned performances are constructed. The sound that this group makes is consistently engaging and pleasing. Blend is excellent and there’s always clarity of both texture and diction. This is a very challenging programme but Sonoro execute it flawlessly

The presentation of this disc is first rate. Producer/engineer Adam Binks has recorded the singers with excellent clarity and just the right amount of warmth. The notes are authored jointly by Neil Ferris and Paul Spicer whose comments are authoritative and well worth reading.

Sonoro’s debut release is a fine achievement. I hope we shall hear more of them on disc before long.

John Quinn



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