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Review: Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D – a demanding work well performed

A demanding work well performed


St Margaret’s Church, Ilkley – Saturday 18 March


This was the final concert for Jennifer Sterling, who has done so much to improve the confidence and technique of these choirs over the past four years as musical director. It is a tribute to their joint commitment to adventurous programming that she chose to perform this demanding and neglected piece. The Mass in D is a shamelessly dramatic work and crammed full of musical invention, clearly written for the concert hall and not for liturgical performance and calls for a large orchestra and four soloists. The demands on the chorus are considerable – complex rhythms, plenty of eight-part writing, high tessitura especially in the louder passages and yet the ability to switch to the sweetest of pianissimos!

Given that the forces available were not ideal in size this was a wholeheartedly committed performance. The choir basses and tenors sang out bravely and the always reliable altos and sopranos were in good voice. The Yorkshire Chamber Orchestra made up for their size with their musicianship and attack. The entries in the fugal passages were clear and there were some beautiful moments in the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei where the choir accompanied the soprano and tenor soloists respectively. Indeed the quartet of soloists were excellent – Marie Claire Breen (soprano), Olivia Hamblyn (mezzo-soprano) and Neil Balfour (bass) but especially the resonant tenor of Xavier Hetherington.

The first half of the concert saw the strings of the orchestra give a strong performance of Greig’s Holberg suite and then, supplemented with woodwind, accompany the choir in two choral pieces by Brahms, one of Smyth’s heroes. The first of these was a pleasing performance of the Geistliches Lied, a chorale-like text set as a double canon with a rather delicious Amen. This was followed by a rather underpowered performance of ‘How lovely are thy dwellings’ from the Deutsches Requiem, sung oddly in English.

But the triumph of the evening was the second-half performance of the mass – a fitting tribute from these choirs to their departing director – Jennifer Sterling – in command of her forces throughout and receiving a well-deserved final ovation.

Chris Skidmore 18/11/23