St John the Evangelist was buzzing with twin-town cultural camaraderie on this sultry May afternoon. The joint forces of the E. Oxford Community Choir and the Ensemble Vocal Interlude from the foothills of the Alps were putting on the second performance (the first was at Dorchester Abbey, the day before) of their Stabat Mater (the Virgin Mary standing at the foot of the cross). The church was full to overflowing and looking a picture, the recently-restored 1890s painted, escutcheon-motif ceiling gleaming in the sunlight.
I have an idea that Stabat Mater, like Stainer's Crucifixion, is less popular than it once was. Whereas the latter's decline is well-deserved in my opinion, that of the former is inexplicable. I believe it's more popular on the Continent, which may explain its programming here. There's no doubting the power of its utterance. It was finished in 1877, the libretto being a 13th century devotional poem, in the wake of the hammer-blows that had lately rained upon the composer: the unrelated deaths of his three young children. It's extraordinary that he managed to complete the work, and miraculous that the abiding impression of its tone, though sombre, is not gloomy, let alone dirge-like.
The appearance on stage of the Franco-British choir was greeted with applause, even cheering, thus setting the scene for the mood of entente cordiale that simmered in the nave. The shifts of mood from grief and near despair to hope and faith run throughout the ten movements, and culminate in the ecstasy of the final 'Quando corpus morietur', with its overwhelming confidence. The 38-strong orchestra got off to a rather scratchy start, the strings sounding thin during the preamble, but soon the players got into their stride. I felt there was one too many horns in the brass section; no doubt four is the number called for by the composer, but here the pudding was somewhat over-egged. When the soloists were singing, it seemed to me they were occasionally overshadowed by the enthusiastic brass sound, the relationship resembling an armed skirmish rather than harmonious dovetailing. That said, Keith Fairbairn's timpani boomed out loud and sonorous, producing a rousing effect, and the wind section did particularly well.
The soloists were a slightly mixed bag. Soprano Hannah Davey came over loud (needed in this large space) and clear; especially good in her 'Fac ut portem...' duet. Nicolas Josserand's bass was smooth and moving, but Mauricio Montufar, Director of the Grenoble choir, looked and sounded somehow ill at ease, and both his volume and tone were a little insipid. Alto Katherine Cooper was a particular delight, however, emoting strongly and enunciating the Latin clearly; especially striking in the passages at the bottom of the note range. She told me afterwards she has been concentrating on this aspect of her singing in recent times. Wise indeed, since how often in the last 12 months have I heard altos struggling in the lower register.
For an amateur choir the Stabat Mater is a bold choice for its relative unfamiliarity and for the fact that it encompasses great depth of emotion and a range of required dynamics and colour. The task is a pretty tiring one, too, given its length and the fact that there was no interval. Our 70 choristers sang with vim and grace, especially in the 3rd ('Eia mater fons amoris...') and 5th movements ('Tui nati vulnerati...') and then captured perfectly the triumphant human spirit in the final movement as hope conquers despair.