Over an extended Bank Holiday weekend in August, the Welsh border town of Presteigne becomes the nucleus of a thriving festival energised by its indefatigable Artistic Director George Vass. Works by Sibelius and Nielsen provided part of this year’s focus, and contemporary music – always eagerly anticipated, included premières by Joseph Phipps, Charlotte Bray, Cecilia McDowall and Matthew Taylor, this year’s composer-in-residence. The return of regular performers such as Tom Poster (piano) and Gilliam Keith (soprano) was also keenly anticipated, as was the Choir of Royal Holloway (last appearing at Presteigne in 2011) who gave the first of their two concerts (this one a cappella) on Saturday at St Mary’s Church, Pembridge.

© Choir of Royal Holloway
© Choir of Royal Holloway

Under their conductor Rupert Gough, the Choir of Royal Holloway has become one of the leading collegiate choirs in Britain with a growing pedigree of recordings that include an emphasis on Baltic music. What sets these young choral scholars apart is not just the diversity of their repertoire (very impressive though it is) but the quality of their singing, and with only about 24 voices they are able to sound twice that number. Quality and diversity were both heard in abundance during their afternoon concert which, typical of Gough’s enterprise, embraced music from Finland, Latvia and three contemporary British composers.

It says much for this group that they can take on challenges like the rarely performed Vigilia (All-Night Vigil in Memory of St John the Baptist) by Einojuhani Rautavaara – a work originally from the early 1970s and steeped in Orthodox mysticism. Described by him as “a glimpse of eternity through the window of time”, the vocal demands of the Vespers are not for the faint hearted especially if you’re a bass. But the Choir of Royal Holloway made light of the low Cs, the multi-layered vocal lines, micro-tones and glissandi and, much to their credit, competed brilliantly in the first ten minutes or so with the distinctly off putting background hum of a plane. Added to this feat they sang in Finnish! In the 14 sections that comprise the first part of Vigilia, Gough drew from his choral forces considerable tonal variety, and where “Sticheron to the Mother of God” was fiercely passionate, “Evening Hymn” was gently devotional. Had the choir stood further forward their rhythmic declamation would have made greater impact, but there was no doubting their remarkable achievement, all given distinctive support from guest soloists Mark Wilde (tenor) and Nico Ferrinho (bass).

The explicit reference to physical lust found in part of Vigilia was carried over into the implicit references in Jonathan Dove’s extended song My love is mine (words from the “Song of Solomon”) written in 1998 for unaccompanied mezzo-soprano. Its folk-like style and gentle meanderings were given a sensitive and pure-voiced rendition by Leilani Barratt. There followed Gabriel Jackson’s La Musique (2013) – setting a joint text by Elizabeth Bishop (in English) and Charles Baudelaire (in French) for choir and solo soprano – (originally Felicity Lott) and taken here by Sophie Edwards. Jackson responded to the texts with typical luminosity generating wonderfully grateful phrases and richly-spiced harmonies. The rapt intensity of its closing bars neatly prepared the way for the austere setting of lines from Psalm 84, Dominus dabit benignitatem, by James MacMillan; its refashioned plainsong contours providing ample opportunities for soprano voices to shine.

The theme of love and passion concluded with Long Road by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, and while the addition of bells and a recorder supplied some bling it was not enough to alleviate the music’s soothing blandness. That said, the near-capacity audience responded with enthusiasm: but give me more Jackson or Rautavaara sung by this crack choir any day.