But in the event, what was most striking about this Fantasia on Christmas Carols was not a spirit of innovation but
the continuity and freshness of social, cultural and performance
traditions, stretching back over many centuries and, this programme
attested, into the future.
The twelve-strong Sonoro were founded in 2016 by their conductor
Neil Ferris and composer-pianist Michael Higgins, and the choir has quickly
made a strong mark on the musical scene. Their debut album,
Passion and Polyphony
, featuring music by James MacMillan and Frank Martin, was
Christmas with Sonoro
which was chosen as BBC Music Magazine’s 2018 ‘Christmas Choice’. And it was the eclectic selection of carols old and new on that
recording that the group performed at Kings Place.
Ferris, who is Chorus Director of the BBC Symphony Chorus and at the Royal
College of Music, has a relaxed rapport with his singers, and they clearly
enjoy their music-making. His fluid gestures coax a vibrant sound from the
group, but an impressive precision and sensitivity is also garnered by
focused and unfussy guidance. The choir profess to be notable for their
‘distinctive and perfectly blended sound’, but on this occasion, while some
items did demonstrate Sonoro’s ensemble accord and responsiveness,
I didn’t feel that the ‘blend’ was always entirely balanced. There was
certainly animation and brightness, but occasionally I felt that the vigour
unsettled the intonation with the four sopranos not always in absolute
agreement; and, I’d have liked a fuller sound from the middle voices to
create a richer roundness. But, any blemishes were minor and did not
detract from a performance that was characterised by varied colour, energy
Such qualities were immediately apparent in the opening carol, Malcolm
Archer’s A little child there is yborn for voices and piano, in
which the lightness of the female voices was followed by robustness from
the men, the dynamics always responsive to the text and Ferris’s
flamboyance getting the show on the road with flair. A similar ebullience
characterised Gareth Treseder’s Blessed be that Maid Marie which
was rhythmically vigorous and carefree of spirit.
Several of the unfamiliar carols made a very strong impression. The
sonorous bass pedal which opens Cecilia McDowall’s O Oriens is
illuminated from above by an aurora of shifting harmonies, creating
shimmering waves of sound-light. It’s a truly magical setting of one of the
Advent antiphons, and the precision and focus it received here enhanced its
transcendental glow. Becky McGlade has found new things to say in setting a
well-known text, Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’, and Ferris
built persuasively through the verses towards the climactic repetition,
“give my heart”, then quelled the swelling sound at the final cadence which
was marked by a beautifully shaped resolving suspension in the tenor line.
The homophonic mellifluousness that Sonoro achieved here also
enriched Paul Spicer’s In a field as I lay, which had a comforting
warmth, and there was a notable concord of phrasing and breathing in Sally
Beamish’s In the Stillness. In contrast, it was the detailed
interplay between the voices which was most striking in Higgins’ own The Angel Gabriel. Here, the finely etched phrases of the lower
voices settled against the ‘loop’ created by the four separate sopranos who
repeat fragments of melody. The isolation of the sopranos’ revolutions at
the close left us with mystery and strange wonder. I particularly liked,
too, Kerry Andrew’s Out of the Orient Crystal Skies in which
Ferris crafted finely defined vocal lines of strong character which drove
towards the harmonically intriguing final cadence.
There were familiar names too among the varied items. Herbert Howells A spotless rose had a lovely fluency and breadth, as the voices
ranged apart and came together, and the dynamic ebbed and flowed. It also
allowed us to enjoy Stephen Kennedy’s solo baritone as he shaped the melody
with sustained pathos. Kennedy was also the soloist in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols where his thoughtful diction drew
forth the meaning of the text – though I have to confess to finding the
piano accompaniment less satisfying than the version for string orchestra.
Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down was one of the highlights of the
programme, the fairly low register and ‘flattened’ modality, together with
sensitively shaped phrasing, creating deep feeling.
A carol concert would not be complete without the presence of John Rutter,
and here we heard Rutter’s arrangement of the twelfth-century Irish carol Wexford carol, as well as the characteristic rhythmic vitality of
the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, which Higgins accompanied with an airy
lightness, and which featured a firm, bold tenor solo.
We had enjoyed Higgins’s arrangements of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day – in which he has set himself
some keyboard challenges – and Silent Night, in which the movement
of the inner voices complements the overall sense of peace. It was fitting,
then, that Sonoro chose another arrangement by Higgins for their
encore, Away in a Manger, which, like this whole programme,
offered a few surprises but was immensely satisfying.
Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Neil Ferris (conductor), Michael Higgins (piano)
Malcolm Archer – A little child there is yborn, Cecilia McDowall – O Oriens, Paul Spicer – In a field as I lay, Howard
Skempton – Adam lay y-bounden, Michael Higgins –The Angel Gabriel, Gareth Treseder –Blessed be that Maid Marie, John Joubert – There is no rose, Herbert Howells – A spotless rose,
Becky McGlade – In the bleak midwinter, Vaughan Williams –Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Trad. (arr. Michael Higgins) –Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, Betty Roe – The holly and the ivy, William Mathias – Sir Christmas,
Sally Beamish – In the stillness, Kerry Andrew –Out of the Orient Crystal Skies, Peter Warlock – Bethlehem Down, John Rutter – Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, Will
Todd – My Lord has come, Franz Xaver-Gruber (arr. Michael Higgins)
– Silent Night, John Rutter – Wexford Carol, Stuart
Nicholson – Ding dong! Merrily on high.
Kings Place, London; Sunday 16th December 2018.
product_title=Fantasia on Christmas Carols: Sonoro at Kings Place
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour