Seven Last Words from the Cross

Saturday 7 March 2009, 7.30pm
Winchester Cathedral

Consumately professional

Southern Voices show just how far they have come

Audiences faced with unfamiliar music often lack concentration but Winchester's chamber choir, Southern Voices, created a real sense of engagement with its listeners in a dramatically varied and highly imaginative programme in the Cathedral. The quality of the music, the inventive staging and the hugely impressive level of technical achievement contributed to this atmospheric occasion.

Unaccompanied, the forty-six voices began with a setting for double-choir of Psalm 2 by Mendelssohn (born exactly 200 years ago) and they relished the rich scoring, the gradations in dynamics and even the dramatic German text delivered with conviction. We later heard a similarly confident rendition of Tallis's sixteenth century version of the same psalm, this time sung from behind the audience as a prelude to the wonderful Fantasia on this Tallis theme by Vaughan Williams. This was played with warmth and commitment by the strings of the Southern Sinfonia and the separation of the two main groups of instruments involved produced the ethereal effect intended by the composer at the work's premiere in Gloucester Cathedral almost 100 years ago.

Earlier, Heather Tuoch, principal cellist of the orchestra, joined the choir in John Tavener's Svyati with words from the Good Friday Liturgy. Tavener's trademark slow tempi, long, low bass pedal notes and an incantatory solo were all present but with playing and singing of this calibre in this acoustic the effect was overwhelming.

The entire second half of the evening was devoted to James MacMillan's 1993 Seven Last Words from the Cross. Originally broadcast over seven evenings by the BBC it makes massive demands on performers and listeners when performed in its entirety. This was an extraordinary experience both for its intensity and the remarkable way voices and strings blended and complemented each other throughout.

Searing dynamics, impassioned vocal solos, terrifying instrumental interjections, whispered chanting and moving close harmonies were all produced with awesome authority and staggering virtuosity which made a deep impression on everyone present. Conductor Charles Stewart is to be congratulated on devising such a powerful and ambitious programme and on his clear, expressive direction. Southern Voices has come a long way in its 25 years and this was a consummately professional performance by any standards.

Derek Beck
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(this review appeared in the Hampshire Chronicle on 19 March 2009)