TO be sitting in the gorgeously ornate interior of Sherborne Abbey on a sunny May afternoon, the sunlight filtering through the stained glass, was almost treat enough: but then the eight young ensemble singers of the London-based Fieri Consort diffidently assembled on the stage, and, without the guidance of a conductor, launched into the Choral Dances from Britten’s Gloriana.
Suddenly the Abbey was full of intricately-blended and immaculately-controlled vocal lines and the concert was under way. The Fieris are proud that their music-making is democratic and collaborative, rather than under the autocratic control of a conductor. To watch them perform has something of the quality of watching starlings flocking above the Somerset Levels: separate intelligences are perfectly united into a corporate performance, and it is sometimes hard not to believe that this is achieved by a kind of telepathy. Each singer is acutely conscious of all the others: they listen to one another intently, and eye-contact and awareness of body language ensure that the performance is more than the sum of its parts.
The Sherborne Abbey Festival programme consisted of blocks of madrigals by English renaissance composers such as Dowland, Morley, Wilbye and Weelkes alternated with blocks of madrigals and part-songs by twentieth-century British composers such as Britten, Rubbra, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Ireland, Howells and Finzi. While the twentieth-century pieces were inevitably more adventurous in structure, dynamics and tonality, the contrast with the renaissance pieces was perhaps less stark than one might have expected. One was struck more by the continuity of musical language. The singers took turns in introducing sections of the programme, further emphasising their leaderless ethos.
For two of the renaissance madrigals, the consort were joined by local amateur singers who had participated in workshops that the Fieris had held in the morning. The standard of ensemble that they had been able to achieve in this brief time was outstanding. The performances were assured and confident, tributes both to the Fieris’ teaching and the participants’ learning.