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Music: The Farrant Singers (Salisbury)

09 June 2022

Roderic Dunnett hears the Farrant Singers


THE Farrant Singers, based in Salisbury, are widely recognised as one of the most articulate and eloquent chamber ensembles in England.

In a recent recital in St Martin’s, Salisbury, they honoured Andrew Mackay, their music director, whose vision, insight, and patent adroitness and musicality have enabled them as a choir to rise to the top of the ladder. He has led them to evince, it was clear, not just utter musical determination fused with rigorous togetherness and precision, but fastidious definition that catapults every phrase or passage to life.

Ranging across the emotions, this was an uplifting event at every turn.

The chosen repertoire invoked, in part, places that fostered Mackay’s colourful career. Both King’s and (especially) Trinity, Cambridge; the Edington Festival; Norwich; Salisbury. Hence, amid apt passages of poetry (read with tangible feeling by Richard Brett) — Hardy, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Ferdinand’s “admired Miranda” speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest — music from varied periods meshed together in an entrancing, evocative web.

Naturally, some featured the buoyant, offset by items that were subdued, touching and moving. Much of the first half was overseen by Philip Lawson, who brought out a splendid mix of zest and feeling from this strikingly flawless ensemble — the longest established Salisbury chamber choir. There is much that is exuberant, almost explosive, in the welcoming songs from Britten’s Gloriana — although the central extract was especially alluring for its phenomenally soft, fleecy central section on “Concord”. William Plomer’s original texts echo remarkably the royal celebration anthems of the Tudor and Stuart eras; “She whose presence hath our pleasance / Gloriana hath all our love!”

Tallis’s Sancte Deus deserved its emphatic reading, with Christ not just implored, but, in effect, bidden to concede: “Do not damn those you have redeemed.” Ralph Allwood took the baton and found layers galore in Francis Grier’s The Voice of my Beloved, based on the Song of Songs for Mackay’s wedding. Here, as in Britten, a highlight was the choir’s meticulous grasp of quite tricky, step-by-step semistaccato.

For sheer purity and tenderness, captured here by intermittent almost near-silence, Robert Parsons’s Ave Maria, gratia plena remains one of the most affecting of Tudor-era Marian anthems, sung here with wondrous purity and reticence.

But, for the full range of the expressive alternating with, or wrapped amid, passionate emotional uplift, there was Andrew Mackay’s own anthem Domine, quis habitabit, honouring a husband who died young and interposing poetry by his widow: “I saw you walk away; was it you there? You half turned as you went; . . . how should that be? You had no time to age; would it had been!” All was restored to life by the gripping vivacity and poetic expressiveness of the composer’s fluent conducting, even if his resort to plainsong near the close (an interposed Psalm 15) left room for doubt.

The whole concert underlined a salient fact. Time and again, it is repetition, or echo, often with imitation or contrapuntally explored, that enables a composer of any period to give full vent to the words. The words invariably benefit from being revisited.

And there was plenty of that in the Farrants’ outrageous finale, The Magna Carta Song, a crazy eulogy on the joys of learning Latin, with bizarre words by Mackay and dotty, flair-filled music by Lawson. To end with the ludicrous seemed perfect to close such a peerless, impeccable, and faithfully tendered tribute.

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