Settings to music of prophetic writings throughout the ages
Music by Hildegard von Bingen, Orlando de Lassus, William Byrd, Gustav Holst, Alonso Lobo, Michael Praetorius, Alban Berg, Heinrich Schutz
The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart (Presented by Chamber Music Hutt Valley)
St.James Church, Lower Hutt
Wednesday, 6th April, 2011
What an inspired idea for a concert! – fascinating to collect together a broad chronological range of composers’ responses to prophetic texts to register any commonalities and enjoy the differences. Not surprisingly, these factors were the two most readily prominent features of the concert, namely the power of the texts to elicit a heartfelt response from every composer, and the sharply varied flavour of each individual setting. The result was an evening replete with strongly heartfelt utterances, expressed with a variety of musical styles and modes – in other words, a “best of both worlds” occasion.
The concert couldn’t have begun more appropriately and strikingly than with Erin King’s beautiful singing of music by the twelfth-century composer, poet, visionary and abbess Hildegarde of Bingen. The otherwise excellent program note didn’t directly indicate that the text of the antiphon O pastor animarum was Hildegarde’s own, though it’s very likely part of her renowned “Symphonia armonie celestial revelationum”, her own collection of poetry and music which she assembled and herself enriched throughout her life.
But the work around which most of the concert’s program was constructed was Orlando de Lassus’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum, a visionary outpouring of highly personalized responses to texts that transported his creative sensibilities towards extraordinary flights of fancy. The texts, attributed to various mystic seers, were largely appropriated from antiquity by the early Christian Church, though it’s thought that Lassus himself wrote the words of the Prologue. The various settings were performed by the Consort in groups of two and three, and interspersed throughout the concert, creating interesting juxtapositionings with the work of twentieth-century composers such as Holst and Berg. Although these composers and others featured in the concert used texts from different sources, the shared intensities of both music and performance fused the varieties of eras and styles into what I felt to be a deeply satisfying whole.
Lassus’s settings featured a kind of chromatic restlessness in places, which, allied to marked flexibility of rhythm and pulse, readily created sound-worlds whose mystical realms seemed somewhat removed from ordinary experience, the texts truly sounding as if from remote times and places. I was reminded in places of Italian madrigals and their volatility of utterance, making for unexpected shifts of harmony, colour and rhythm by way of bringing the texts to life. Michael Stewart, director of the Consort, had introduced the composer and the music, characterizing Lassus’s work as “wonderfully weird” – and the group brought out the music’s varied intensities throughout each of the three groups of Prophetiae before the interval, with beautifully-judged gradations of sound and finely-honed intonation. In the Sybilla Europaea’s Virginis aeternum from the first group of Prophetiae after the resumption I thought the bass lines less well integrated with the whole – the rest soared and whispered across a stunningly varied sound-spectrum, the startling modulations and spooky “sotto voce” ambiences of the piece utterly spell-binding. And again, in the following Verax ipse Deus of the Sybilla Tyburtina the men’s voices again sounded to my ears a shade too nasal in effect, compared with the rest of the choir.
Amends were made with the beautifully-turned final group of Lassus’s Prophetiae, the two settings rather more conventional in effect, I thought, apart from occasional modulations which, though unexpected, we had by now come to expect! As a whole, the work was a perfect foil for the rest, William Byrd’s beautiful Ecce Virgo concipiet seeming like balm to our senses, coming as it did in the midst of all of Lassus’s convoluted chromaticisms. Holst’s Nunc Dimittis, too, seemed more “anchored” harmonically, though the overlapping eight-part opening created a frisson of expectation which built unerringly towards a real cathedral-style apotheosis at the final Gloria. And the Spanish composer Alonso Lobo’s Ave Maria had a gloriously rolling-sound kind of perpetual-motion character (the double choir creating something of an inexhaustible voices effect), all beautifully delivered.
In the second half of the concert we were able to enjoy contrasting settings (separated by three hundred years) of the German Advent Carol Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, by Michael Praetorius and Alban Berg, the latter here eschewing his Second Viennese School associations for a more late-Romantic tonal setting. Praetorius’s essentially simple, straight-to-the-heart treatment of the words admirably set off Berg’s more extended and somewhat tortured, though still achingly beautiful setting. Concluding what I thought was an evening’s glorious singing was the Teutsch Magnificat of
Heinrich Schütz, set for double choir, and featuring at the outset richly-wrought antiphonal exchanges between the two groups. The composer cleverly varied the word-pointing in places, telescoping the word-pointing and creating a kind of word-excitement which bubbled out of and over the edges of the music – “singing for the joy of singing” was the phrase that came to my mind as I Iistened, caught up in the exuberance and beauty of it all – marvellous!