This was, by no doubt, the largest ensemble on stage at Colston Hall this season with five choirs and an orchestra that took over the stage and all the seating behind it. The Bristol Ensemble teamed up with the City of Bristol Choir, Exultate Singers, The Red Maids’ School Choir, Bristol Youth Choir and Westbury-on-Trym Parish Choir to a packed full house on Saturday night.

Erica Eloff © Sussie Ahlburg
Erica Eloff
© Sussie Ahlburg

Due to some ventilation difficulties in the hot hall, I was unfortunately unable to watch the last movement of the Rutter Mass of the Children or the end of Jonathan Dove’s There was a Child, but nevertheless enjoyed seeing choral works in full force on such a huge scale. The resulting heat in the hall left some of the woodwind in the Bristol Ensemble out of tune, which perhaps could have been solved by tuning on stage. Despite this, their technical ability was commendable and the instrumentalists weren’t outweighed at any point by the sheer number of singers. Programme-wise, the three pieces linked well together in size and choral nature but woud have worked better if they had been performed back to front. Handel’s Zadok the Priest would have made a great choral finale to the evening. 

One of the most notable performances and star of the evening was from the virtuosic soprano Erica Eloff. She projected herself effortlessly over the multitude of other voices. Physically, she remained relatively still on stage, but the expression of her interpretation of the solos from Rutter’s Mass of the Children was not lost and had a unique quality. Eloff’s vibrato was mature yet still with an air of purity about it, making her perfectly suited to the more religious choral nature of the three pieces of the evening essentially providing the cherry on top of a very large cake. The tenor, Toby Spence, has a brilliant and bright voice, but didn’t project strongly enough across everyone, resulting in some of his solos being lost and merging into the background. Despite this, there were some wonderful solos in the Sanctus and Benedictus in Rutter’s Mass of the Children.

The unquestionable favourite of the concert was the Handel. The opening rendition of Handel’s well-known anthem, Zadok the Priest, was absolutely huge. Many goosebumps were acquired from the inevitably enormous sound of the six combined ensembles and had a profound impact. The climax in Rutter’s Mass of the Children came in the Agnus Dei where the build-up at the beginning of the movement slowly swelled with impact. John Rutter himself walked modestly on to the stage to conduct.

Chorally, the more impassioned parts of the music were more together timing-wise than the linking parts that ran in a less seamless fashion. The orchestra was at times disconnected from the choirs, but the choirs themselves remained punctual and coordinated. It could possibly have been due to Rutter being more of a choral master than orchestral conductor, which led to this. He remained behind the soloists as they sang and lost their direction without being able to contain them within the rest of the ensembles. Saying this, conducting on such a large scale was by no means a small feat for Rutter and under the circumstances, his mastery of choral music shone through, especially in Zadok the Priest, in which the timing was spot on as a result of more meticulous direction. When the giant choir hit the big parts, it worked really well. The only thing that the choirs needed more work on was the Latin pronunciation of the mass, but otherwise, each ensemble should be proud of their collaborative summer gala performance.

***11