Tuesday 27 September 2016

Luxury voices in a new ensemble: Sonoro in Rachmaninoff's Vespers

Sonoro & Neil Ferris at Sacred Heart Church, Wimbledon
Sonoro & Neil Ferris at Sacred Heart Church, Wimbledon
Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil (Vespers) Op 37; Sonoro, Neil Ferris; Sacred Heart Church, Wimbledon
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 22 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Always a huge pleasure to hear the Rachmaninoff Vespers, especially a beefy version

Sonoro is a new professional chamber choir of 17 trained soloistic voices (four per part plus an extra bass was the line-up for tonight’s concert). Conducted by Neil Ferris the choir performed Rachmaninoff's All-Nigth Vigil (Vespers) Op 37 at Sacred Heart Church, Wimbledon on 22 September 2016. They have been brought together by conductor Neil Ferris and pianist Michael Higgins and aim for a warm, European sound. I assume this is a statement about what they are not, and so the choice of Rachmaninoff’s monumental Vespers meant we looked forward to a massive, free (some might say vibrato-heavy) reading of the piece.

The venue, Sacred Heart Church in Edge Hill, Wimbledon, might seem a bit off the beaten track but it was packed; whether this was the piece, the group or the venue I couldn’t tell, but it was impressive nevertheless.

The evening started 15 minutes late and Neil Ferris kept us in suspense for a further 20 minutes with a talk illustrated with sung extracts from the Vespers. I am not sure who the talk was intended for, but it was rather short on scholarship with many confessions that material was lifted from Wikipedia. Frankly I’d have preferred the show to start on time and go home and Google it from the comfort of a padded typing chair rather than sitting on a wooden pew for an extra half hour. The printed programme contained a nice, concise essay about the background to the piece and Rachmaninoff’s relationship with the Orthodox church.

Sonoro choir
I really enjoyed the sound of bigger, grown-up voices and was glad to hear the vibrato that feels compulsory for this repertoire.
But I did miss the sheer force of numbers throughout; an extra alto would have helped the balance, as it sits low for a trained mezzo voice. I wanted unbelievably tense pianissimos and a wall of sound. This may have been easier to achieve in accompanied repertoire, but in this it felt a little tentative. We were reminded throughout that this is hard music by the fact that the singers were given the chord (not just a note) before practically every number, and some of them held the scores squarely in front of their faces at times, just to remind us how hard it is...

The pronunciation of the Russian was a little less than idiomatic – unstressed syllables (pronounced as written rather than as a schwa) and palatalisations (the consonants followed by a ‘y’ rather than being a different kind of consonant) betrayed the fact that the group haven’t internalised the rules, and occasional lack of unanimity on how to pronounce a vowel affected the tuning at times.

Nevertheless I did enjoy the performance and really appreciate what Ferris and colleagues are trying to do. I am also fully aware that it is trickier to get a blend with seventeen vibrato-rich voices than with seventeen ‘white’ voices and am delighted that Ferris is swimming against the tide in going for a luxurious old-fashioned sound. I feel sure that as the group sing together more they will nail that elusive combination of individuality and ensemble.

And of course it is always a huge pleasure to hear the Rachmaninoff Vespers, especially a beefy version.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
All-Night Vigil (Vespers) Op 37
Neil Ferris – conductor

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