April 2014: Mary's Story

Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 12 April 2014

Source: Angela Blackwell

Shouts of “bravo” from an appreciative audience echoed around the Cathedral after an evening of dramatic music telling ‘Mary’s Story’. Exeter Festival Chorus, under the expert direction of Nigel Perrin, provided a cohesive and thought-provoking programme with the text of the Magnificat and Stabat Mater set by composers of different nations.

Giles Swayne’s Magnificat was composed in 1982 for Christ Church College, Oxford and poses a number of challenges for any choir. This a cappella piece, with polyrhythms inspired by African music and a vast tessitura, is written for double choir and soloists. Here the choir produced ensemble skill of the highest level; the jaunty rhythms were sung with precision and control and a masterful balance between the two choirs and soloists was achieved.

Following this spirited work was Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s profound reflection on the ‘grieving mother’; written at a time when he was consoling his sister over the death of his niece. From the haunting wind solos and rich, chromatically dissolving string chords, sensitively performed by the Southern Sinfonia, the scene was set for a performance of great depth of emotion. The choir produced moments of simple, hushed beauty which contrasted effectively with the power, agony and ecstasy of movements when they were joined by baritone soloist George Humphreys. Slight balance issues did not detract from an emotive performance of a work that surely deserves wider recognition.

Rossini’s Stabat Mater is a work in which the composer’s melodic flair is fully on display. At the world première The Escudiers reported that “The entire work transported the audience, the triumph was complete” – a sentiment that was surely echoed by the Exeter Cathedral audience. The choir was joined by two fine soprano soloists, Joanne Boag (a superb late replacement) and Yvonne Howard, who handled Rossini’s coloratura writing with clarity and ease. Amongst all the drama, the choir produced moments of sincerity and warmth. A particular highlight was ‘Quando corpus morietur’, sung from memory and with every nuance explored. What better way to lead in to Holy Week than with music telling Mary’s Story, sung by a choir on top form.