This enterprising exploration of British choral music from The Marian Consort and The Berkeley Ensemble comprised mostly works on a Marian theme.
Top of the bill was Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater (1947). Its unconventional scoring is for six vocal soloists and twelve instrumentalists. Even performances by specialist groups are rare and until this year no recording has been made of it (the first is due from these current musicians on Delphian, release date is July 22).
Stabat Mater is one of Berkeley’s most substantial sacred works, which arose from a request by Benjamin Britten to write a piece for the English Opera Group. Dividing the medieval text into ten sections, Berkeley only uses the six voices for the final movement. The overall effect is a series of scenes at the foot of the cross with each singer, or group, elaborating on Mary’s suffering, like an observer. This ‘staged’ approach creates variety of timbre and expression, but also drew out individual strengths and weaknesses. David Wordsworth conducted efficiently and coaxed from sopranos Emma Walshe and Gwendolen Martin warmth of tone in their duet. Bass Nick Ashby was impressively cavernous and Rory McCleery was a mellifluous countertenor. The Berkeley Ensemble was unfailingly sensitive in its accompanying role.
Straddling the interval were two works by Sir Lennox’s son, Michael. Catch Me If You Can keeps five wind-players busy in largely playful music inspired by children’s behaviour and games. A slow and atmospheric central panel is framed by two infectious movements – their sly rhythms and leaping melodic contours dispatched with assurance and alacrity. Touch Light, for soprano and countertenor with strings, draws its creative energy from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. Walshe and McCleery proved to be ideal partners in bringing this exquisite duet to life; the melting dissonances a kind of ‘death by chocolate’ ecstasy. I’d love to hear Michael Berkeley’s response to the Song of Solomon!
At the start of the evening The Marian Consort sang three a cappella Latin settings by Judith Weir, Matthew Martin and Hilary Campbell. Weir responds to the Compline antiphon Ave Regina Caelorum with her customary skill, its persuasive entreaties artfully woven into the fabric. Martin’s Ave virgo sanctissima uses six voices antiphonally to great effect and Campbell’s Ave Maria is highly approachable in its luminous harmonies. The Marian Consort sang with flawless ensemble and intonation, the music glowing with intensity.