F MARTIN; MACMILLAN Passion & Polyphony
Twenty years ago the Gramophone Recording of the Year was a Hyperion disc by Westminster Cathedral Choir under James O’Donnell. The centrepiece of that recording was Frank Martin’s unaccompanied Mass for Double Choir. That remains by far and away the finest recorded performance of the work, this latest from Sonoro offering, I regret to say, no serious competition.
Neil Ferris has certainly taken the work to heart and his reading is nothing if not powerfully intense, but he drives his singers hard and they respond with a performance over-burdened with drama and passion. The choir is small – the booklet lists 20 but pictures of the recording sessions show just 17 voices – and they compensate for this by expending much effort on creating a big sound. This is certainly robust singing and covers a huge dynamic and expressive range (vividly displayed in an astonishingly operatic delivery of the Sanctus), but it overwhelms the deeply personal and introspective qualities which are at the core of Martin’s sublime Mass.
Coupling Martin’s work with a number of sacred pieces by James MacMillan makes sense, although the contention in the booklet notes that both composers ‘have an affinity with Renaissance music’ is questionable. The principal MacMillan work here is his extended setting of the Miserere with its obvious nods towards Allegri’s setting of the same text. Once again the choral sound is robust and the delivery highly charged, with the chanted sections exuding a lovely tranquillity.
The numerical thinness of the choir works to the advantage of the shorter pieces, notably the enchanting Hymn to the Blessed Sacrament with its sinuously intertwining parts for oboe and viola. Ferris moulds the performances to convey that unique sense of mystery, tradition, folk-like openness of expression and exotic harmoniousness which characterises so much of MacMillan’s sacred music.