A church, a summer evening, twenty-seven singers dressed all in black, and a single piece of music: sometimes there’s a special magic in doing things simply. Not that there’s anything simple about Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, the sole work in this concert by Armonico Consort under its artistic director Christopher Monks.
This performance served Rachmaninoff beautifully, especially as the evening light began to fade. Monks and his team played it straight, just standing there and singing – with the exception of two sections when they quietly took position on all four sides of the church and let the sound envelop the audience. And what sound! Armonico Consort has the two absolute prerequisites for this work – floating, honey-toned sopranos, and basses whose pianissimo bottom notes can make the very air seem to quiver.
But the inner voices were what made this performance glow from within. Soloists stepped briefly out of the choir: a plangent tenor (Joseph Doody), a rich but nicely-focused bass (Lewis Jones) and an alto (Polly Jeffries) whose unfussy tone was affectingly poignant against the choir’s velvet cushion of sound. Monks paced the piece naturally, at the speed of speech, leaving room for his singers to colour individual words (“Alliluyas” chimed out like little bells) but accelerating seamlessly and organically into Rachmaninoff’s ecstatically syncopated climaxes.
It all felt of a piece, and yet the choir sounded as fresh, as focussed, and as tenderly reverent in the final Vzbrannoy Voyevode as they had an hour earlier. A concert performance this may have been; but somehow, at the end, it didn’t seem right to clap.