★★★★ SONORO, FERRIS, ST BOTOLPH-WITHOUT-BISHOPSGATE New choir on the block delivers the promised passion and polyphony
Launched into an already crowded choral scene in 2016, the professional choir Sonoro has marked its second birthday with the release of a debut CD. Last night was the launch concert, featuring items selected from the disc. On the evidence of both CD and concert Sonoro is a very welcome new addition to the roster of excellent London choirs, with its own distinct sound and ethos.
This was the second time I have heard Sonoro, but their relaxed and good-natured Christmas concert was in a different world from the serious-minded religiosity of last night. In the excellent acoustic of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate they explored music by two composers who share a divine inspiration: the Swiss Frank Martin and the Scot James MacMillan.
Martin was represented by his best-known piece, the Mass for Double Choir of 1922-6. Although Martin was devoted to Bach, the Mass looks back to older polyphonic styles, offering variously hints of Lassus, Tallis and Machaut, among others. It was part of the movement in the 1920s to look to older models (Vaughan Williams’s Mass, also for double choir, was written contemporaneously) but without the knowingness of Stravinsky or les Six: Martin is utterly sincere.
Sonoro lived up to their boast of a “warm and rich” sound. The professional singers are clearly encouraged to sing with a soloistic freedom in extrovert passages, without losing the blend in quiet sections. Loud sections such as the "Hosanna" of the Sanctus or the climax of the "Christe eleison" were very effective, but at least as electrifying were the hushed closing moments of the Agnus Dei, full of a religious ecstasy even this atheist could feel.
Sonoro was founded by Co-Artistic Directors Neil Ferris (who conducts) and composer and arranger Michael Higgins (pictured above). Ferris is an engaging presence on the podium, who also spoke well in introducing the concert. While controlling the music carefully, he also visibly enjoyed the singing, and the singers clearly enjoyed singing for him.
Bookending the Martin were three short sacred pieces by MacMillan (there are seven on the disc, two recorded for the first time.) Cecilia Virgo, celebrating the patron saint of music, starts with a wonderful bitonal exchange between the two choirs, these chordal passages alternating with sections of polyphony. The best bits were where a harmonic smudge would suddenly clear to a consonance, the choir pin-sharp in its tuning.
The second piece, Children are the heritage of the Lord, owes something to the chordal English-language settings of Tallis (where Martin had evoked his polyphonic style). It occupies a much simpler, but never banal, harmonic world, and Sonoro achieved a fine unanimity of sound. Only in some later sections did I feel the choir sound was a bit too polished for the innocence of the music, perhaps using more vibrato than was called for. But to round things off, MacMillan’s Data est mihi omnis potestas was assertive and full-throated, ending with a sequence of punchy, muscular alleluias.