REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on University of York Choir and Symphony Orchestra, The 24, York Minster, June 8

The University of York Choir and Symphony Orchestra in concert at York Minster. Picture: Steve Crowther

AS the Match Of The Day football pundits might say, this was a game of two halves.

Despite the obvious musical intelligence and quality on offer, I struggled with the performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor. It is a large-scale work scored for two soprano soloists, a tenor and a bass, double chorus and large orchestra.

Coupled with the nature of Mozart’s musical dialogue, this meant that I simply could not hear all of the detail, thanks to this very generous Minster acoustic.

There was, however, much to admire: Elspeth Piggott’s soprano solo in the Christie was impressive, although I lost some of the lower register. The fine, crisp string playing in the Gloria. Soprano Rebecca Lea, a last-minute substitute for Helen Neeves, sang the Laudamus Te with real assurance, although again I lost some of the lower register.

More rewarding was when the two singers combined forces in the Domine Deus – tender exchanges and reassuring support. The following Qui Tollis was also satisfying, with Mozart using a double chorus underpinned by a pulsating dotted rhythm ostinato.

The highlight was always going to be Et Incarnatus Est, simply because of the intimacy of the scoring: soprano solo, solo flute, oboe and bassoon. That and the quality of Ms Piggott’s performance of this operatic aria.

Elspeth Piggott and Rebecca Lea were joined by tenor James Beddoe and bass Patrick Osborne for a very fine Benedictus before the recap of the fugal Hosanna, signing off the performance with aplomb.

And so, to the second half. As vocal musical experiences in the Minster go, it doesn’t come much better than the excellent The 24, directed by Robert Hollingworth, singing Bruckner’s Locus Iste and Christus Factus Est motets.

These are not the most technically demanding of works but, nevertheless, we were royally treated with performances of clarity, balance, detail and very real musical insight. The Minster acoustic loved it and, as a consequence, so did we.

This was followed by an inspired piece of programming with Elgar’s rarely heard Elegy op. 58. Well, I’ve never heard it anyway. The performance revealed a delightful jewel of a work intimately scored for string orchestra.

To be sure, there were echoes of Nimrod. Evidently his friend August Jaeger had died one month earlier, but it worked just fine in and of its own terms. Quite poignant, actually.

The concert closed with a full-bodied performance of Bruckner’s Te Deum in C, superbly marshalled by conductor John Stringer. Due to the cleaner, predominantly homophonic nature of Bruckner’s setting, the experience was much more rewarding than the Mozart.

The textures were less busy. Having said that, the sound world had a monumental quality: full-on tonal building blocks of sound augmented by the organ blasts of affirmation; a “cathedral of sound”. This is, after all, a deeply religious work.

There were moments of tranquillity, glimpses from within: the wonderful quartet of soloists – Elspeth Piggott, James Beddoe and Patrick Osborne, who were now joined by mezzo-soprano Helena Cooke. It was such a welcome relief to actually hear all the detail; a tender tenor solo with telling solo violin commentary (Michael Capecci).

However, the work ended as it had begun, in triumphant affirmation and splendour. I thought the sheer volume of sound might blow the Minster roof off; it certainly brought the house down.

Review by Steve Crowther

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on University of York Choir & Baroque Ensemble, Central Hall, December 16

Sarah Latto: Guest-conductiing 250 singers

IT was a good idea to schedule two Baroque Magnificats side by side in a single Christmas programme. What was arguably less sensible was to sing them in reverse chronological order.

The large choir was joined by the chamber choir The 24, bringing its numbers up to 250, all guest-conducted by Sarah Latto.

The history of Bach’s Magnificat is not altogether simple. This Christmas marks the 300th anniversary of the premiere of his first Magnificat, which was in E flat major. Over the following three years, he revised it, cutting out its four Christmas texts so that it could be used throughout the year and transposing it into the key of D major.

That is the version normally heard. What was given here was indeed “inspired by the early version” but in the later key. So we heard it with the Christmas bonuses.

It spearheaded the evening. In the opening chorus, the Baroque Ensemble, numbering some two dozen, was immediately right on its toes. The choir took longer to find focus. In the first interpolation, ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’ (From Heaven Above), the chorale melody in the sopranos needed greater prominence.

But there was a crisp attack into ‘Omnes generationes’ and thereafter the choir was fully focused: the ending of ‘Fecit Potentiam’ was superbly triumphal and the final Gloria equally imposing.

It was entirely understandable that soloists from within the choir (all members of The 24) were used, exactly as Bach would have done. But in this dry acoustic, which is so unreceptive to solo voices, it worked only intermittently.

Only one, the soprano Molly O’Toole, had the consistent resonance to surmount this difficulty; the baritone Will Parsons ran her a close second. Both, incidentally, sang their arias by heart. All of the others, equally youthful, were never less than competent, but lacked the projection required.

The orchestra contributed strong rhythmic backing, with first-class solo work from flutes and oboes. The portative organ, however, was underpowered against these forces and the harpsichord virtually inaudible.

The ‘other’ Magnificat was by the little-known Milanese nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. Written in the year of Bach’s birth, 1650, it inevitably suffered by being heard in the wake of his work rather than beforehand. But it proved an engaging work, for double choir, full of imaginative metrical changes closely linked to the text, even if its harmonic palette was limited. The 24 relished its antiphonal effects.

A Sinfonia pastorale – defined as for the Christmas season by its closing movement – was led from the violin with considerable panache by Asuka Sumi, one of the Baroque Ensemble’s co-directors (the other is cellist Rachel Gray, also present here).

Thereafter we enjoyed three Michael Praetorius settings of Christmas carols, with orchestral accompaniment. Finally, Gruber’s Silent Night, to an American translation, invited audience participation.

It made for a second half that was rather less exciting than Bach’s Magnificat had been. Nevertheless, Latto had conducted decisively, mouthing all the words as choral conductors are wont to do, but achieving excellent results and infusing the choir with enthusiasm.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on The 24, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, November 22

Conductor Sarah Latto

THE core of this wonderfully programmed concert was the sensuous, perhaps even erotic text of the Song Of Solomon.

The poem celebrates love in an invitational courtship: two lovers singing to each other, desiring each other. They are in harmony in a God-free narrative that celebrates humanity.

This was particularly striking in Raffaella Aleotti’s setting of Ergo flos campi where the two lovers take the form of two unequal choirs. The energetic antiphonal exchanges were beautifully delivered by the singers.

The24’s concert opened with Flemish composer Clemens non Papa’s setting of the same text. This was a refined, controlled performance where the weaving of the seven-part setting was delightful. The balance was impeccably judged.

I was going to mention the striking high versus low setting of the ‘lily between thorns’, but as it was highlighted in the programme notes I’ve decided not to bother. I really enjoyed the ebb and flow of Hildegard of Bingen’s Flos Campi. The musical experience was undoubtedly spiritual.

James MacMillan’s setting of Robert Burns’ The Gallant Weaver was a secular musical match made in heaven. The work is brimming with the distinctive influence of Scottish folk music – the rich ornamental inflections or decoration was delightfully executed, as well as Gaelic Psalmody.

The overall effect was generally peaceful; the voicing was inspired with triple soprano divisions and gentle hanging dissonances that were exquisite. The only issue I had was the exposed bass and tenor setting of the words ‘the gallant weaver’, which jarred. Sir James, I suspect, not the choir.

The 24: “Radiating warmth and joy”

I personally find Morrissey a charmless, narcissistic individual, but there is no doubting his ability as a songwriter and performer. I really like The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (written by him and guitarist Johnny Marr), and I found this arrangement by Sarah Latto and the performance itself quite sublime. It was so touching, tender and respectful.

There is much to admire in John Barber’s Song Of Songs (commissioned by The Sixteen); the intricate weaving of the musical lines, lovely ornamentation and music that rhythmically danced. But I failed to engage with the work. Not even the funky ostinato of Love Is As Strong As Death or the splendid singing in By Night could revitalise that movement’s blandness.

Unlike Judith Weir’s Vertue; a very fine performance of a very fine work. Weir’s music always shines brightly, and this was no exception. Alex Kyle made a guest appearance to conduct Schütz’ Ego Dormio; the direction was assured and the performance highly rewarding.

Kerry Andrew’s CoMa Blues was a welcome change of musical gear. The composer has forged her own clearly distinctive voice, and this short theatrical performance was spot-on.

One of the concert highlights was Victoria’s Trahe Me Post Te. It is such a delight to immerse oneself into this velvety chocolatey sound world of absolute luxury. Especially when the performance, under the inspirational direction of conductor Sarah Latto, is as polished as this.

The programme concluded with Philip Glass’s Quand Les Hommes Vivront d’Amour. This attractive work is a hymn to universal love and the responsibility that goes with it, a somewhat timely message needed right here and right now.

It had all the hallmarks of Glass’s radical, and it is indeed radical, style: effective, almost hypnotically driven motor rhythms, repetitive patterns, breathing dynamic phrasing. The performance radiated warmth and joy, a great way to sign off, to say goodnight.

Review by Steve Crowther

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

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on The 24, York Guildhall, March 1

Robert Hollingsworth: Conductor of The 24. Picture: Frances Marshall

YOU would not normally expect a choral concert to consist only of eight Mass sections, four each from the 16th and the 21st  centuries.

That thought must have occurred to Robert Hollingworth, conductor of The 24, which is now the University of York’s chamber choir (although with eight more singers than its title suggests).

So he added – on the pretext that this was both St David’s Day and the first official day of spring – six seasonal poems along with extracts of birdsong. Not perhaps what paying customers had hoped to hear, but certainly original.

Equally controversial was the setting of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, in what was termed an arrangement by Francesco Soriano, a former pupil of the great man and a one-time choirboy at San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome (St John’s Lateran) under his direction.

Soriano’s declared intention is to convert Palestrina’s four-voice setting into a double-choir, eight-voice polychoral one. But at times he departs so far from Palestrina’s original that what he produces is better described as a paraphrase. We would be better off leaving Palestrina’s name out of it altogether.

The 24 tackled it judiciously, if without much variation in tone or dynamics. When upper voices were heard alone during Palestrina’s Benedictus, it was both a welcome relief and beautifully done. The preceding Credo had enjoyed a strong finish, but there was no sign of a piano at the Crucifixion. The most homogeneous tone came in a smooth Agnus Dei.

The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara completed his Missa A Cappella five years before his death in 2016 aged 87. It derives a certain mysticism from its regular use of a halo of sound around its main melodies, which otherwise appear without much accompaniment.

There was a new urgency in the choir here, which peaked in the rapid chanting at the end of the Credo. The ‘halo’ effect was at its best against the solo in the Sanctus; the otherwise calmer Benedictus closed with an unexpected crescendo.

There was even a glimpse of timelessness in the Agnus Dei, where the layering of the voices was at its clearest. Doubts remained however about how much weight the composer had given to the actual texts, as opposed to merely producing a spiritual aura.

The 24 is obviously a highly competent ensemble. But one could have wished for repertory that had stretched it more and provided contrast with the two masses. The poems were intelligently read but would have benefited from amplification. The birdsong remained, I fear, peripheral. But it was good to be back in a refurbished Guildhall.

Review by Martin Dreyer

University of York Choir to perform joyful ‘Colossal Baroque’ Roman music at Central Hall with The 24 and The City Musick

Robert Hollingworth: University of York Choir musical director

THE University of York Choir join forces with The 24 and The City Musick for an evening of the “Colossal Baroque” music of 17th century Rome at Central Hall, University of York, on March 18.

Under the direction of Robert Hollingworth, the 7.30pm programme combines Orazio Benevoli’s Missa Di Deus Pro Nobis for four choirs with what the choir’s musical director describes as “other monstrous works” by Benevoli’s Venetian teacher, Vincenzo Ugolini, among others.

Almost forgotten today, Benevoli (1605-1672) was one of the most important Roman Baroque composers of his day. “He wrote glorious, large scale, multi-choir music that included a technique called ‘reining in the donkey’, in which the lower parts move hastily underneath a static soprano line, supposedly like a priest sitting on and trying to hold back a frenetic donkey,” says Hollingworth. “Think King Of Kings in the Hallelujah Chorus,” he suggests.

The 24 is a University of York music department ensemble, conducted by Hollingworth, founder/director of I Fagiolini. The City Musick comprises cornett, sackbut, dulcian, strings, organs and theorbos.

Tickets for this “wonderfully joyful and uplifting event” are on sale at: