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Daring programme in Nottinghamshire

by
15 March 2013

By Roderic Dunnett

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SINFONIA CHORALE is a prodigiously talented choir based in and around Nottinghamshire.

On the basis of its latest concert at Beeston Parish Church, an inspired collation of Baroque works that are almost never heard in the UK, it not only has, under its director, Richard Roddis, courage in its programming: it is meticulously rehearsed, and now of a quality to be dubbed the Ex Cathedra of the East Midlands, in an allusion to the Birmingham-based ensemble that provided help to inspire this polished concert.

One of Sinfonia Chorale's great assets - as its performance of Antonio Teixeira's Te Deum with the Derwent Singers in Derby Cathedral and Southwell Minster in March 2011 proved - is the singular solo quality of its singers. The blend is first-rate; but individual voices arise out of the textures to deliver powerful solo passages. A low bass allotted several sequences in this concert (in Buxtehude not least) was pick of the bunch: commanding, fabulous-toned, clear, unbooming, and accurate. The rest were too many to mention; but their bold contributions were utterly uplifting.

This was daring programming. Not only did the pieced-together Baroque Ensemble's brass come up with a sturdily performed eight-part work by the Venetian - what would now be Croatian - Francesco Usper (1561-1641). But enter two works, one a Salve Regina, the other Mexican-inspired - a short invocation of the Virgin in the Nahuatl language - by the splendid Hernando Franco, first Spanish composer of note to follow Columbus to (central) America; and, wrapped around them, the whole Missa Ego flos campi (including expressive Credo) by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, who followed around 1620, and spent almost half a century, latterly as maestro de capilla, at the cathedral in Puebla, near Mexico City. As the notes pointed out, this was the richest musical centre of the Spanish territories outside mainland Spain.

Many a subtle detail of these extraordinarily individualistic works was brought out: nuanced, as appropriate emphatic, admirably illustrating the distinct variety that Padilla, a master placed between Renaissance and high Baroque styles, achieves. Solo and chorus entries were confident, finely executed, and attractive: evidence of remarkable preparation, given that Roddis's main emphasis is to lend a clear beat (only twice did his richly imagined pacings fractionally flag) rather than tease out finicky detail. It is evidence of his confidence in his singers. This is well placed.

Use of instrumentation to double the voices - hard work went into making ready materials - paid off in alluring colouration and texturing. North and south Germany made inspiring appearances: an earlyish setting of Psalm 24 ("The earth is the Lord's") by Heinrich Schütz, and an even more buoyant cantata, Alles was Ihr tut, by J. S. Bach's idol Dietrich Buxtehude. The tone of each of the soprano soloists (as here) was enticing, individual, and consistent. The repeated instrumental prelude was gorgeous. The choir was superb.

Fabulous brass again initiated the Austrian Heinrich Biber's Dixit Dominus, the first part of his Vespers. Then buoyant soli came in quick succession. Just at one point what appeared to be a solo octet creaked in its tuning, and that scarcely at all. Two, perhaps three fugues (one at "Quia fecit" in the Magnificat) were terrific; and the content was absorbing. Deep down, the bass shone again. The emotive tensions where two upper voices are paired were even more evident here: it had all the intensity of chromaticism. The Magnificat opens like Handel and Purcell conjoined; Biber's finale (not doxology) was thrillingly paced.

Choral societies are often timid, fearing that electrifying music like this will scare away audiences. For the sake of their choirs, conductors could, like Sinfonia Chorale, be more adventurous. The thrill of the unknown sometimes outweighs the sleepy security of the known. And that is true for audiences, too.

Padilla's Missa Ego sum flos campi is recorded by Ex Cathedra on Hyperion CDA 30030. 

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