July 2011: Cantos Sagrados

Exeter Cathedral, Saturday 2 July 2011, 7.30pm

Source: David Batty


The Exeter Festival Chorus' contribution to the city's season of summer music-making was an imaginative concert of contemporary choral works, given in Exeter Cathedral on 2 July.  All four works were written by composers with strong beliefs in various Christian traditions, mixing sacred and vernacular texts.

The first, and most well-known, was John Taverner's Song for Athene, which the Chorus sustained with clean lines rising to a well controlled climax, seemingly undisturbed by an offending audience mobile phone.  The second piece in the concert, James Macmillan's Cantos Sagrados, was the most challenging for both choir and audience.  Like the Latin American texts used by Macmillan, the music was uncompromising and dramatic, and the Festival Chorus delivered a sterling account of this difficult work.  Perhaps the contrast in the second movement between the deep sadness of the opening verses and the later, bitter accusations around the Conquistadors' atrocities was insufficiently stressed, but the whole work made a vivid impression.  The serenity of Henryk Gorecki's Salve, sidus Polonorum ended the first half of the concert.  Here we were transported to the spaces of a large Orthodox cathedral with great washes of choral sound and colour, building to a wonderfully effective and well-sung climax in the second movement's acclamation of St Adalbert.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Howard Goodall's Eternal Light, A Requiem, a tuneful and approachable work in ten movements.  If the choir seemed a little uncertain in the 'Dies Irae: In Flanders Field', the melodic highlights of the work, including settings of 'Lead kindly light' and the 'Agnus Dei' were sung with real warmth and assurance.  Solos were taken by Johanna Harrison and Iain Duffin, the latter especially affecting in 'Litany: Belief'.

Throughout the concert, Nigel Perrin conducted the Festival Chorus with authority and sensitivity, ably assisted by four fine instrumentalists, Peter Adcock (piano), Jonathan Watts (organ), Kate Watt (harp) and Elmley de la Cour (percussion).  And a compliment too, to Diana de la Cour for her programme notes which greatly contributed to the audience's appreciation of a fine and stimulating concert.