A few years ago, Northern Sinfonia Chorus were planning a concert that combined unaccompanied choral works and solo flute pieces for one of John Casken’s Alwinton Summer Concerts. Tonight’s conductor, Alan Fearon, explained that when he was planning that programme, he remarked to Casken that it was a pity there was no work that the chorus and flute could perform together – at which point Casken went off and wrote just that, The Knight’s Stone, a setting of the medieval Corpus Christi Carol, for chorus with solo flute accompaniment. It was this work that formed the centrepiece of a Late Mix concert concert given by the (now) Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia in Hall Two of Sage Gateshead, flanked by motets by Bruckner and Bach.

There was some excellent singing in the Bach motets, Der Geist Hilft and Jesu meine Freude, that opened and closed the concert. The opening of Der Geist Hilft was crisp and the singers bounced nicely off the words in the second section. The closing Hallelujah was quietly ecstatic but on the whole Alan Fearon’s conducting failed to convey any sense of what this motet was about. Jesu meine Freude came across better, perhaps because the interpretation of the colourful words and correspondingly dramatic music is rather more straightforward. Although the choir were clearly tired at the end of a late concert and after some long rehearsals, they found new bursts of energy here, and the counterpoint was clean and precise throughout. The sixth section, Weg mit allen Schätzen (Away with all treasures) had a nice bounce to it, and the work ended with gentle warmth and sincerity.

The Bach and Bruckner motets also suffered from the simple fact that a choir of just over fifty singers was too far large for the small hall. The singers were restrained into a narrower dynamic range and we were too close to them, so individual voices and tiny slips were more prominent than when they perform in the larger Hall One. The chorus usually varies in size according to their programme, and this evening’s would certainly have benefited from being performed by smaller forces.

Bruckner’s musical output falls mostly into two categories: his colossal romantic symphonies and his choral works. His unaccompanied motets draw heavily on the Renaissance polyphonic tradition that Bruckner studied so assiduously in his youth and onto that framework he adds the rich harmonic colour that he was developing in his symphonic writing, producing exquisite little jewels. In Ave Maria the choir was at its most expressive, flowering into a big rich sound on the word “Jesu”, with nicely shaped phrasing in the “Ora pro nobis” section. The basses in particular added power and depth to the piece with a good tone in the very low passages. Virgo Jesse Floruit was also very enjoyable; it flowed nicely, with particularly nice legato singing in the opening alto phrases. Fearon rushed through Christus factus est, however, giving his singers no chance to savour Bruckner’s spine-tingling harmonies.

John Casken’s piece The Knight’s Stone was undoubtedly the highlight of what was otherwise a rather disappointing evening. The Corpus Christi poem itself is strange, unsettling and rich in medieval symbolism, all of which is echoed in Casken’s music. The piece begins with the solo flute, played this evening by Juliette Bausor, looping and soaring elusively like the falcon in the verse, then against this the choir begin on a quiet chant of close, unchanging, discords, suggesting the keening of mourners around the dead knight. The choral texture becomes denser and the flute more agitated as the dead knight and his wounds are described, before it settles back to stillness, the voices dying away and the flute returning to the opening ideas, with added flutter tonguing that suggested the bird, having led us to the tomb is now hovering over it. The singing throughout was well controlled, and beautifully shaped, particularly at the end of the piece, as it dies away into tiny fragments of sound. This was an imaginative work of great beauty, and it was performed with great expressivity by the choir and by Juliette Bausor. The Royal Northern Sinfonia has more works by John Casken programmed later in the season; The Knight’s Stone makes me eager to hear them.

***11