Tackling such a popular piece poses the problem of generating freshness and sparkle, and Cantilena rose at least partly to the challenge.
There was plenty of the sort of musical detail that we have come to expect from their focussed but genial conductor, Oliver Walker. Cantilena delivered some very good sections, with increasing confidence and energy towards the end. But they were at times overpowered by the organ, and with some tuning problems in the exposed 2nd movement. The unavoidable positioning of the organ some distance from the singers clearly did not help.
Cantilena were complemented by sweet-voiced soprano soloists Catherine Hart and Becky Quiney and male alto Jonathan Woodhouse, with able accompaniment by organist Matthew Redman.
The choir seemed more settled and cohesive in the unaccompanied Marian pieces, and these were the most successful of the programme. Choir and a superb semi-chorus particularly shone in Benjamin Britten’s delicate Hymn to the Virgin, written when Britten was still a schoolboy.
Cantilena produced some magical moments in this, with particularly good tone, phrasing and dynamics. For me, it was the highlight of the evening.
There was confident attack in Victoria’s rather rumbustous Ave Maria and a pliant rendition of one of Rachmaninov’s fine settings from his All Night Vigil.
After interval refreshments of mulled wine and mince pies, with proceeds going to St Margaret's Hospice, there were carols for choir and audience, interspersed with readings by choir members.
Cantilena are continuing to set a high standard of music-making locally, and I look forward to their Spring concert on Saturday 27 March, featuring another oft-performed gem: Faure Requiem along with a Mozart mass.