The 20 Greatest Choirs

Gramophone Magazine, by Jonathan Freeman-Atwood, January 2011
for The Monteverdi Choir

“The evolution of a choral group is not dissimilar to that of an orchestra in the way working together of artists instils special disciplines, values and defining character. In Britain we can describe what gives King’s or St John’s College, Cambridge, Christ Church or New College, Oxford or Westminster Abbey or Cathedral their distinctive sounds – ranging from traditional practices and repertoire passed down through generations, to centuries of finding musical solutions to suit each particular building and it’s acoustics. Organist-directors, boys, choral scholars and lay clerks come and go but these choirs quietly carry their quotidian torches into succeeding term and century.

While the Monteverdi Choir has evolved like any other group (for more than 40 years in this case), this is an ensemble with no fixed abode, no fixed liturgical purpose and therefore an unending capacity for flexibility and renewal according to the project in hand. Its main recruiting territory has been from the universities and music colleges and it is therefore embedded in the solar plexus of the great choral tradition. The difference is that members of the Monteverdi are required to make the leap of faith in responding to the indefatigable and insatiable demands of its founder and director, Sir John Eliot Gardiner; maintaining a responsive and virtuoso mixed professional concert choir is, for him, akin to the ambitions of a Rattle in Berlin or Jansons in Amsterdam. Gardiner may also employ a talented ensemble of instrumentalists but it’s the Monteverdi Choir which is its Alpha and Omega.

Whatever the current rationale for the Monteverdi Choir’s acquiring the grand epithet of “world’s best choir”, it will have been stimulated by acknowledging a level of performance that rarely dips below the super-excellent. Unlike many top choirs, it never rests on a single laurel and has never stayed in one place for long. This is partly due to its prolific repertoire and hairy schedule: whether jumping up and down on an opera stage, singing a cappella in Santiago or famously, in its Bach Pilgrimage of 2000, performing Bach cantatas in 50 different venues. Yet one can trawl through the Monteverdi catalogue from DG, Philips, Erato and latterly, SDG and take highly contrasting examples of its legacy, deriving fascination from both the choir’s chameleon-like capacity and an instantly recognisable “core” sound. Both are heard in the group’s soft-grained and ethereal Rameau, evocative Brahms, seamless Victoria, bucolic Poulenc, glowing Haydn, penetrating Beethoven, rustic Grainger shimmering Poulenc and turbo-charged Bach.

We must attribute the longevity of excellence to some other factors. Gardiner is ever at the heart of selection and is committed to building individual quality for a corporate good of the choir. According to the context, he will take risks with a young voice and allow her to “step out” in the solo arena. Such was the case in their remarkable sui generis reading of Monteverdi’s Vespers at the 2010 Proms – a work that has become an emblem of the choir’s rich-veined, fresh and adaptable profile. And think how many exceptional British singers have emerged through this stable.

There was once an occasional feeling that the choir was becoming a bit too uncompromisingly assertive bit the past 10 years have seen a mollifying and yielding quality, softer hues to add to the bristling control and rapier technical work which have set standards internationally.”