Choir singing in Royal Hall
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Rossini - Stabat Mater
Puccini - Messa di Gloria

Royal Hall, Harrogate, 11 June 2011

Puccini & Rossini flyer

Sacred music with an operatic twist

The choice of programme for last Saturday's concert of the Harrogate Choral Society in the splendid setting of the Royal Hall saw the combination of two lesser known works. An excellent matching of sacred pieces written by operatic composers - Puccini's Messa di Gloria, the work of a youthful composer, and Rossini's Stabat Mater, a work completed in his later years at a time when he had all but given up composition.

The core of the music in both pieces is never far from its operatic roots with easily remembered tunes in abundance, over-the-top writing for the soloists and tongue in cheek orchestration for accompaniment. It is almost as though neither composer could bring himself to take the task of setting religious texts all that seriously yet it is this that gives the music such freshness.

The choir was, I thought, on fine form. The balance and blend between the voice parts was better than I have heard for some time, the sopranos not dominating the texture. The choir's pitch was consistent throughout the evening and the control of sound from the loudest to the softest was sublime.

The opening Kyrie set the tone of the evening, with much attention to the phrasing. The rather twee opening of the Gloria was cheekily characterised and the grand melody of the Qui tollis section putting a smile on the faces of the choir. An interesting diversion was having the male chorus perform the Crucifixus aria originally written for bass soloist. This was neatly sung with good blend achieved but for me lacked the passion of the solo voice.

The choir were joined by the male soloists, James Edwards, tenor, and Alistair Ollerenshaw, baritone. James' operatic pedigree came to the fore in the Gratias and Alistair's warmth and evenness of tone was delightful in the Benedictus.

The excellent Amici Ensemble's accompaniment throughout the whole evening was reliable with some superb flute and clarinet playing, impressive brass, well-blended strings, but leaving one with the usual though understandable regret that there were not more upper strings available.

From the joyful setting of the words of the Gloria the second half of the evening contained the Rossini setting of a devotional poem expressing the Virgin Mary's grief at the foot of the cross. With the full quartet of soloists now on the platform there was much to enjoy.

Andrew Padmore's experience brought some splendid singing from the choir. Always lively to watch he guided the instrumental and vocal forces through the evening with certainty and clarity, the choir's thorough preparation being obvious.

Unaccompanied choral singing with large forces can be a moment of nervousness for conductor and choir but the several long sections required of the choral forces were a real highlight of the evening, particularly in the longer sections in the Rossini. They were memorable and impressive.

Lulled into a false sense of reflection by the opening chorus and quartet of the Rossini we were soon to be hugely impressed again by James Edward's tour de force in the musically inappropriate setting of Cujus animam. Sung with great aplomb his rapport with the audience was palpable.

Mezzo soprano Alison Barton was disappointing in her presentation throughout. Her warm tones indicative of a fine voice but she appeared tentative and barely looked out of her vocal score all evening.

The pick of a well-balanced quartet of soloists was undoubtedly the soprano Samantha Hay. She was a star turn and would grace any concert platform. Her voice has great clarity and beauty of tone, range and power. Her easy relaxed stage manner and ready smile demanded the attention and got it. And while she sang beautifully throughout the Rossini the best was saved for the last aria with chorus, Inflammatus at accensus. Not content to finish with the two top C's the composer had written her final, glorious note was yet another.

It was only right that the choir should have the final say and finish the evening with the elongated fugal pastiche chorus with soloists joining the choir to round off a wonderful evening of music making.

John Dunford