Thursday 25 February 2016

Richness of sound and fullness of tone - new chamber choir Sonoro debuts in Baroque classics.

Sonoro Choir & Baroque Ensemble, conductor Neil Ferris at St Martin in the Fields
Sonoro Choir & Baroque Ensemble, conductor Neil Ferris at St Martin in the Fields
Vivaldi, Handel, Bach; Sonoro, Neil Ferris; Church of St. Martin in the Fields
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 23 2016
Star rating: 3.5

New chamber choir revels in the richness of a full and vibrant sound

Sonoro is a new professional choir set up by Neil Ferris and Michael Higgins, designed to create a sound which is rich and full. Conducted by Neil Ferris the choir made its debut at St Martin in the Fields on 23 February 2016 with the Sonoro Baroque Ensemble, led by Simon Standage in a programme of Baroque classics by candlelight, Handel’s Zadok the Priest and the Sinfonia from Solomon 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba', Vivaldi’s Gloria RV589 and Bach’s Magnificat in D BWV 243.

Neil Ferris & Sonoro Baroque Ensemble
Neil Ferris & Sonoro Baroque Ensemble
The choir numbered 17 singers, with women on the alto line and the line-up featured a number of singers who are soloists in their own right. Neil Ferris’s intention is to create a more European sound for the choir by allowing the singers to be free to use all of their voice. This produced a remarkably strong and exciting sound from just 17 singers, with a significant amount of vibrato but with the individuals blended into a unified vibrant sound. Throughout the evening Ferris’s speeds were often on the brisk side and it was impressive how even and uniform the passagework was.

The concert opened with Handel’s coronation anthem Zadok the Priest. Ferris drew quite a smooth texture from his instrumentalists, rather favouring the fine oboe playing from Anthony Robson and Hilary Stock. The choral contribution was impressively vibrant and remarkably strong, so that here and elsewhere during the evening I felt that a slightly larger band would have supported the voices even more.

Vivaldi’s Gloria was the raison d’etre of the concert as it was part of St Martin in the Field’s Vivaldi by Candlelight series. The work opened with brisk, classy playing from the orchestra and a big firm sound from the choir. In the more sustained passages such as Et in terra pax the singers brought out a fine legato, warmed with a strong vibrato, whilst movements like Propter magnam gloriam tuam were vividly exciting. Domine Fili, unigenite introduced a nice contrast between the strong sense of line and well pointed accompanying rhythms.

The solos were all taken by members of the choir. Nina Bennet & Joanna Tomlinson were the well balanced pair of rich toned soloists in Laudamus te. Eloise Irving was the well modulated soloist in Domine Deus complemented by Anthony Robson’s fine oboe playing. Martha McLorinan’s focussed yet richly vibrato-led tone brought dark strength to Domine Deus, Agnus Dei. Cathy Bell was the characterful soloist in a perky account of Qui sedes.

Sonoro Choir & Baroque Ensemble
Sonoro Choir & Baroque Ensemble
The choir makes a goodly noise and the overall result was a remarkably vibrant and exciting account of the score with a high degree of professional finish. None of the soloists had particularly ‘Early music’ voices and not everyone would have liked the rich, vibrant (and sometimes vibrato-led) style, but there is no doubt about the singleness of Neil Ferris’s vision.

The Sinfonia which opens Act Three of Handel’s  Solomon (known nowadays as The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba) was taken a quite a lick, with the music burbling away nicely. Bach’s Magnificat opened with another stirring and exciting chorus, showcasing some of the choir’s fine passagework. There was vigour and excitement too in Quia respexit and Fecit potentiam, though occasionally I could have done with more from the orchestra. The final two choruses brought the piece to a close with an impressive swagger.

Again the solos were all taken by members of the choir. Lucy Goddard spun a fine sense of line in Et exaltavit though Neil Ferris’s speeds seemed to make little allowance for his soloist's breathing. Alice Gribbon’s vibrant voice in Quia respexit was complemented with some fine oboe playing. Ed Grint brought his lovely black, yet surprisingly mobile voice to bear on Quia fecit mihi magna. Cathy Bell and Gareth Treseder were nicely balanced in Et misericordia but here I really did want something cooler and more lyrical, and less strongly vibrant. Greg Tassell gave us a wonderfully bravura opening to Deposuit and coped admirably with the speedy tempo. Ruth Kiang was strongly characterful in Esurientes with some lovely burbling flutes (Rachel Beckett and Christine Garratt) and combined with Rachel Ambrose Evans and Alice Gribbin to intertwine finely in Suscepit Israel.

Having such strong voices singing the solos, with such a rich modern sound brought a very specific quality to the work. As with the Vivaldi, it was the choral contributions which I really enjoyed, and found the style of solo singing a bit too rich for my palate, and I longed occasionally for some cooler English tone. However, the choral contributions were vividly exciting and vibrantly thrilling, without the sound ever seeming over-done and with the quieter passages benefiting from Ferris's approach too.

Sight-lines were a little imperfect, sitting in the middle of the nave (Row L) we could only just see the singers and it was difficult to see the individual soloists and they could have done with the choir staging being raised higher. And it was a shame that the set format of the programme at St. Martin in the Fields prevented a more imaginative programme, it would have been lovely to hear these fine performers in something a little more unusual, perhaps the CPE Bach Magnificat instead of the better known one.

As an encore we heard Hail Gladdening Light by Charles Wood (you can hear them perform this on Whilst their performances the baroque repertoire had an impressive combination of technique and style, I was keen to hear their approach in later repertoire and for that we have to wait for future concerts.

The choir's next concert (on 1 April 2016) will include Faure's Requiem plus music by Durufle & Poulenc (though I did find myself wishing that it was Durufle's Requiem they had chosen). Later in the year there is Frank Martin’s mass and Pizzetti’s requiem (23/6/2016), Rachmaninov’s vespers (22/9/2016) and a concert of Advent music including works by James MacMillan, Morten Lauridsen and Michael Higgins (25/11/2016). Full details from the Sonoro website.

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