tue 19/06/2018

Bach B minor Mass, Clare College Choir, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, Kings Place | reviews, news & interviews

Bach B minor Mass, Clare College Choir, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, Kings Place

Bach B minor Mass, Clare College Choir, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, Kings Place

Settling to splendour, and haloed by trumpets, a glory of civilization duly blazes

Nicholas Collon: his Aurora Orchestra waxes in strength and sophisticationBenjamin Ealovega

Nothing tests small-hall acoustics better than that most exuberant of holies, the Sanctus from Bach’s B minor Mass. After one of the year’s big disappointments, the blowsy sound coming from chamber ensembles in the Barbican/Guildhall School’s new Milton Court –  a surprise miscalculation from Arup acousticians -  it seemed imperative to get back to Kings Place’s Hall One, which feels bigger but is some 200 seats smaller (420 to Milton Court’s 608). And oh, the clarion cries of the 32 young Cambridge choral singers! The piercing but never ear-splitting beauty of perhaps the greatest natural trumpet writing known to man, flawlessly led by Mark Bennett, the Aurora Orchestra’s answer to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s David Blackadder!

It’s not quite exclamation marks all round. The second of the two halves into which the greatest of all masses – yes, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis included – was split provided one stunner after another. But in the first, not all of Nicholas Collon’s tempi seemed comfortable, or rather his players and singers could sometimes have done with more space to breathe and billow within them. The line-up of soloists looked classy on paper, but top lyric soprano Malin Christensson seemed taxed and, underneath the smiles, tense at the gait imposed for her “Laudamus te”, ducking and diving physically to achieve the tricky ornamentations. These were rich voices all, a far cry from the churchy mice we used to get in such works, but that fact wouldn’t have registered to everyone in the audience when so many seemed embarrassed by baritone Benedict Nelson rarely lifting his eyes from the music – odd behaviour from a seasoned English National Opera performer.

Clare College Cambridge Choir and Aurora Orchestra at Kings PlaceMerely as a matter of personal taste, I'd rather have heard the world-class mezzo of Jennifer Johnston – a mere second fiddle to Christensson in two duets – than a countertenor in the two most moving arias. Still, you couldn’t have wished for more amplitude, or a lovelier lower-register vibrato, than William Towers delivered in phrases of endless beauty. The closest bond with instrumental obbligato, though, was forged between resonant tenor Joshua Ellicott – a superb replacement for the alas indisposed Andrew Kennedy – and the Aurora flautist, Jane Mitchell, in the Benedictus.

Collon’s Aurora strings, waxing in strength and sophistication, brought gutty bite to their lines, and even in fullest ensembles the wind’s brightness could be heard above the general jubilation. It was the Clare College Choir, though (pictured above with the Aurora Orchestra in Bach's St John Passion earlier this year), who yielded most surprises. Youth means a baby-tenor sound, and the want of ultimate depth to basses, but sopranos and altos kept on giving. The nuancing of the “Crucifixus”, the stunning modernity of “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum” and the great terracing of voices in dancing counterpoint, crowned by those trumpets, set the seal on a work which never ceases to amaze. This is the end not only of Kings Place's mightily ambitious Bach Unwrapped year but also of the Britten centenary. So it seemed equally pertinent to celebrate with a masterpiece which that composer placed alongside Schubert’s Winterreise as a peak of Western musical civilization.

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