O Magnum Mysterium
Magnificat - Rutter
Christmas music by Warlock, Darke, Rutter, Lauridsen, Stanford, Wilberg, Chilcott, Joubert, Carter, Mathias and Hywel Davies
Review by Mike Town:
A large and appreciative audience assembled in St. Andrew’s Church, Penrith on Sunday evening, 6th December, despite the traumatic flooding which had affected almost every part of the county during the previous 48 hours. The choir and orchestra were somewhat depleted, with several members unable to reach Penrith. The event opened with a prayer for those afflicted by the floods, led by the Rev. David Sargent.
The concert, subtitled ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ with reference to the title of one of the items sung in the second part of the programme, was a delightful mixture of familiar and less familiar seasonal choral music. Edward Taylor, conducting his first concert with the choir, marshalled his forces, including the choir of about 60 singers, with organ and small orchestra of strings and wind instruments, plus piano and percussion extremely effectively, with some adjustments made for those who were unavoidably absent.
The first part of the programme was a performance of John Rutter’s ‘Magnificat’, Mary’s song, with additional words from a 15th Century English poem ‘Of a rose’, the Sanctus from the Mass and Sancta Maria, a prayer to Mary. The contrasting words of the seven sections of this work were brought to life by using different combinations of choir, orchestra, piano (substituting for the harp) and organ (double bass substitution) together with the soprano soloist, Sarah McAllister. Generally the balance was excellent, although at times the comparatively limited number of tenors and basses at the back of the chancel, who were standing (or occasionally sitting for some accompanying items) behind the ladies were less audible and could have done with singing on a platform in order to project their sound more clearly. Having said that, the particular highlight for me was the sixth section, ‘Esurientes’ (translated as ‘he has filled the hungry with good things’) in which Sarah sang with extraordinary beauty and delicacy, while the seated choir accompanied the soloist with luxuriant harmonies, with a delicious oboe solo plus piano and organ underpinnings all producing a wonderful musical effect.
The second half consisted of eleven contrasted pieces, including the unaccompanied ‘Benedicamus Domino’ by Peter Warlock, ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ (Morten Lauridsen), ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’ (Bob Chilcott) and ‘Hey, now, now, now’ (Hywel Davies), all of which were sung with clear diction and accurate tuning.
The recently restored organ was well displayed in Garth Edmundson’s Toccata based on the German Christmas chorale ‘Von Himmel Hoch’, with its torrents of notes played on the manuals, while the theme thunders out intermittently on the pedals, all brought to a splendid climax by Jordan English.
The remaining items, including ‘In the bleak midwinter’ (Harold Darke), ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol’ (John Rutter), Magnificat in G (Charles Stanford), ‘Torches’ (John Joubert), Mary’s Magnificat (Andrew Carter) and ‘Ding, dong, merrily on high’ (arranged by Mack Wilberg) were sung accurately and fluently, the quieter ones with appropriate delicacy and the energetic ones with plenty of rhythmic drive. Of particular note was Jonathan Millican’s multi-talented performances as soloist, pianist, percussionist and page-turner!
Overall, this was a wonderfully uplifting concert to lighten the damp, dark days of December and a great credit to all who took part.