Southwell Festival Voices Christmas Celebration
December 21 2018
Review: William Ruff
Tender, thrilling, sensuous, serene: Southwell Festival Voices have a recipe for success
Southwell Minster’s Christmas Celebration is in danger of topping the list of things that doctors prescribe to patients suffering from pre-Christmas stress and shortest-day-syndrome. I defy anyone attending not to feel refreshed, refocused and returned to the spiritual substance which the annual festival of shopping and remorseless jollity threatens to obscure.
Chief amongst the annual Celebration’s ingredients are the 14 hand-picked members of the Southwell Festival Voices, young singers at the summit of their art. They sing unaccompanied, their conductor Marcus Farnsworth ensuring that they blend into one perfectly tuned instrument capable of the subtlest of musical nuances. And they maintain the highest definition, whether filling the echoing spaces with exultation or dissolving into the darkest and most mysterious of pianissimos.
Another ingredient is the music’s range: everything from the medieval to the modern, its lack of familiarity a mark of the trust established between performers and audience. The ancient Advent Antiphons with which they began their 2018 concert will be amongst the year’s most magical moments for many attending. Solo voices stationed at opposite ends of the Minster intoned the Latin words until the whole choir entered in semi-darkness.
Amongst so much musical treasure four gems shone particularly brightly: Poulenc’s Four Christmas Motets scattered throughout the programme. The first O Magnum Mysterium was remarkable for its austere harmonies and exquisite melodic foreground, gradually but thrillingly rising in intensity. The third, Videntes Stellam, ensured that the Magi’s gifts were presented in a glowingly intense sonic climax. The last, Hodie Christus Natus Est, became a joyous carol-like celebration culminating in a triumphant Alleluia.
And there was so much more – whether tender, thrilling, sensuous or serene: John Casken, Bob Chilcott, Roderick Williams, Elizabeth Poston and Peter Warlock were just some of the composers who reached into the Christmas story with their music and made it new.
The actor Clive Mantle was this year’s reader. From high in the pulpit he gave intelligent, vividly characterised performances of poems dovetailed into the musical fabric. He needed almost as many voices as the singers for pieces (from the likes of Ted Hughes, Robert Bridges, Norman Nicholson and Laurie Lee) which commented on the meaning of Christmas from so many narrative standpoints.
Place all these ingredients within the context of a candle-lit Minster (whose acoustics glow as warmly as its great pillars) and you have a recipe for success.
Southwell Festival Voices conducted by Marcus Farnsworth, with Clive Mantle (reader)