REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on University of York Choir, The 24 and The City Musick, 18/3/2023

Conductor Robert Hollingworth

University of York Choir, The 24 and The City Musick, Central Hall, University of York, March 18

WELL, this looked interesting, but then any concert with a strapline “Reining in the Donkey” and curated and conducted by Robert Hollingworth would be.

Last Saturday’s concert was a highly imaginative programme focusing on Orazio Benevoli’s mass, Missa Si Deus Pro Nobis, dovetailed with music by Andrea Gabrieli, Vincenzo Ugolino, Palestrina and Frescobaldi.

The mass was written for eight choirs supported by 15 continuo instrumentalists. These would be placed in stalls above and around the congregation, thus setting up a dramatic, sumptuous surround-sound extravaganza.

In York Minster this would have been a real musical event, but in the Central Hall, with an acoustic as dry as sandpaper, it wasn’t. And nor could it have been. Right from the choral opening of Vincenzo Ugolino’s Quae Est Ista, the university choir sounded cruelly exposed and vulnerable.

With all the forces at play, however, the singers grew in confidence through the Kyrie and Gloria of the Benevoli Mass. The choral exchanges of the lovey suspended sequences in the Credo worked well.

The introduction of the amazing contrabass shawm, played by Nicholas Perry, was quite an experience. I thought it sounded like a musical equivalent of the butler Lurch from The Addams Family but it is probably best described by Paul McCreesh as “the finest fartophone in all music”.

Not all the choral detail was in place; the rhythmic passages in the Credo, for example, were not as crisp or accurate as they should have been, but the extensive tutti sections at the end of each of the movements were confident and satisfying. Indeed, the Agnus Dei conclusion was luxurious, quite delightful.

The instrumental movements performed by The City Musick players were, obviously, imperious. Catherine Pierron’s chamber organ performance of Frescobaldi’s Toccata No.3, weaving webs of magical tapestry, was breathtaking.

There was also a wonderful, confident Agnus Dei by Palestrina (arr. Francesco Soriano) sung by The 24, a choir clearly at the top of their game, with crystal-clear part singing throughout. Very impressive.

Anyway, back to the donkey. The technique is a musical joke where busy antiphonal exchanges (runaway, out-of-control donkeys) combined with long plainchant melodies (hapless, possibly fat, cardinals pulling on the reins). Excellent.

I get the impression that Orazio Benevoli’s Missa Si Deus Pro Nobis is not only a hidden gem, but now a discovered masterpiece. I would love to hear Robert Hollingworth curate and direct another performance. But not here, not at the Central Hall. Please.

Review by Steve Crowther