Southwell Festival Voices
December 20 2019
Review: William Ruff
Deceptively simple ingredients mixed into a seamlessly convincing whole
Southwell’s Christmas Celebration is the perfect antidote to the sensory overload which accompanies the festive season these days. In a high-tech world that encourages short attention spans and focuses on rapidly changing images, it is the concentration and stillness of the Festival Voices concert which so refreshes and invigorates.
The concert’s format gives the lie to anyone who fears that the art of listening is dying. Before the music started the eyes were given a rest: lights were dimmed and, before vision adjusted to the gloom, heavenly sounds emerged in the distance, as if the Norman pillars themselves were exhaling wisdom gleaned from the last 900 years. And if one composer could be said to encapsulate wisdom it is Abbess Hildegard of Bingen – composer, philosopher, playwright, author, poet, artist, theologian, visionary and prophet – and it was her O viridissima virga which opened the concert with its images drawn from nature and its music soaring heavenwards.
O Adonai by Roderick Williams which followed was an even more immersive experience with singers placed in front of and behind the audience. Beginning with an ecstatic soprano solo the music became antiphonal, phrases passed down the entire length of the Minster, locking listeners within the mysteries of Moses and the burning bush.
Throughout their intelligently planned programme conductor Marcus Farnsworth and his Festival Singers used the Minster itself as a musical instrument, exploiting both its dimensions and acoustics to dramatic effect. Surprisingly little was familiar. There was a joyful setting of In Dulci Jubilo by Michael Praetorius as well as a touchingly simple, unsentimental Away in a Manger. But the rest of the music came as a revelation.
Although some of the music dated from the 15th century, it was typical of the concert’s enterprise and ambition that the composer of four pieces was actually present in the audience: Cheryl Frances-Hoad, whose work encompassed the mystical (as in Bogoróditse Dévo, a hymn to the Virgin) and the earthily, back-slappingly festive (as in Good Day, Sir Christemas).
Another composer with four items on the programme was Herbert Howells and the crystalline clarity of the Festival Voices was well-matched to the calm purity of his music. Marcus Farnsworth sensitively shaped the gentle lilt of Sing Lullaby, the easy ebb and flow of A Spotless Rose and the surprising expansiveness of Here is the little door.
There was no interval: the right decision as nothing could be allowed to interrupt the flow of ideas or the spiritually immersive experience of music offset by aptly matched readings. These were in the expert hands of actor Clive Mantle who reached into each of the texts, illuminating meaning without ever straying into dramatic excess. The poems (by the likes of John Betjeman, Charles Causley, Wendy Cope and U. A. Fanthorpe) were well chosen for their directness as well as their insight.
The ingredients of this Southwell concert look deceptively simple: one actor, fourteen singers, sixteen musical items (including their Twelve Days of Christmas encore) and twelve poems. However, they are all woven into a seamlessly convincing whole, a triumph of artistic finesse which after three years it is easy to take for granted – but which should never be underrated.
Southwell Festival Voices
Marcus Farnsworth, Director
Clive Mantle, Reader