Alastair Carey with the Clerkes of Christ Church, Oxford

English anthems and motets, including Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices and Purcell’s ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway’

Hugo Janáček, Alastair Carey, Gregory Skidmore (the Clerkes); Pepe Becker (sopano), Robert Oliver (viol), Douglas Mews chamber organ)

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Wednesday 19 August 2009

The former tenor and director of The Tudor Consort, Alastair Carey, who left Wellington to pursue a career in England found his way into the choir of Christ Church (it does not employ the word ‘college’, though it is one), Oxford. The choir is one of the several distinguished university choirs which include, variously, professional singers – ‘lay clerks’, boy choristers and undergraduates; it is the choir of the college after which Christchurch was named because John Robert Godley, one of the city’s founders, had studied there.

Carey teamed up with two of his colleagues, all of whom have also performed with other notable choirs in several countries, to take advantage of this connection; and the three singers had sung in Christchurch before arriving in Wellington.

As the backbone of the first half of the concert, they used Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices, punctuating it with anthems and motets by other Tudor and Restoration composers.

The impact of the three voices in their first piece, Sheppard’s ‘In manus tuas’, was revelatory, producing a sound of superb blend and stylish elegance, of a polish and finesse that is not common. The baritone, Gregory Skidmore, had a voice of particular beauty, and in the Gloria of Byrd’s Mass, it emerged, additionally, with robust energy.

Most of the intermediate pieces were by Dowland: songs of loss and distress, which provided an unleavened sequence of suffering and lament. Purcell’s two anthems, ‘Lord, what is man, lost man?’ and ‘What hope remains now he is gone?’ did little to lift the air of self-pity and tragedy, beautiful though they were. However, variety was present as most of the songs – as distinct from the a cappella mass – were accompanied by Robert Oliver on the bass viol with Douglas Mews on the chamber organ.

Carey himself took a solo role in Purcell’s ‘Flow my tears’, with organ accompaniment, producing attractive, sustained lines in a tone of subdued lamenting.

The second half moved forward a century, apart from the rather charming lullaby, ‘Quid petis, O fili’ by the shadowy Richard Pygott, to consist mainly of Purcell. In the Purcell songs, the three men were joined by soprano Pepe Becker whose voice was sometimes obscured by other more prominent parts, but often her striking timbre made an impact, for example in Purcell’s ‘Hear me, O Lord’ when voices and the instruments sounded in turn, creating an interesting narrative and texture. While in the next song, ‘Thy word is a lantern’, counter-tenor Hugo Janáček and Becker created diverting rhythms and varied timbres. The music was now distinctly more modern, the composer paying attention to vocal and instrumental timbres for their own sake.

A hymn, ‘O Lord my God’, by Purcell’s predecessor, Pelham Humphrey, who had an even shorter life than Purcell (he died at 26), drew attention to a great talent. New Grove remarks that Pelham’s personality ‘embodied much of the spirit of the Restoration court … a minimal respect for institutionalized morality…’. The hymn provided a long and impressive duet between tenor and baritone in quite adventurous style.

The familiar ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway’, introduced by a striking organ prelude, brought the bracket of Purcell to an end. The concert itself then moved into the 18th century to end with Boyce’s ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’, signs of gallant style, the singers proving equally comfortable in this very different music, with a bold passage from the baritone and Pepe Becker’s soprano rising clearly above the male voice textures.

Soprano Nicola Holt and pianist Nicole Chao at St Andrew’s

Nicola Holt (soprano) and Nicole Chao (piano) Songs by Thomas Arne, Schumann (Frauenliebe und –leben, Op 42) and Schubert; Ballade No 4 in F minor (Chopin)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Midday, Wednesday 19 August 2009

I missed the first two songs in this lunchtime concert, but was told that the two songs by Thomas Arne, from Shakespeare (‘Where the bee sucks’ from The Tempest, and ‘When daisies pied’ from Love’s Labours Lost) were most delightfully sung.
But I was very happy to arrive just after the Schumann song cycle had started. Nicola Holt’s very musical and beautifully articulated singing created a wonderfully satisfying performance of the charming and varied Schumann cycle. Her voice has a purity and unaffected quality that captures the sadness as well as the ecstatic qualities of the songs. There was hope and a sunny anticipation in ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ that shifted movingly to anxiety in ‘Süsser Freund, du blickest’, deeply felt.
The piano kept drawing attention to its major role in the songs, reflecting with rare sensitivity their subtle mood changes.
So it was fitting that the recital gave solo space to the piano, with Nicole Chao’s playing Chopin’s fourth Ballade. There was a carefully hesitant start, as much as to say, ‘dare I tell you this tale where distress and ecstasy alternate?’ Her left hand explored the story’s many facets with confident rubato, sometimes of considerable boldness. Chao’s sense of high romanticism was rewarding, producing impassioned playing towards the climax, with an extended, dramatic pause before the coda, which did become slightly muddied.
Nicola Holt then returned to sing three favourite Schubert songs: Auf dem Wasser zu singen, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ and Seligkeit.
Beautifully as these were sung, they never recaptured the exquisite refinement and emotional adventure that she expressed in the Schumann song cycle.
It was a delight that a singer, occasionally, dares to include well-known songs in a recital of this kind. Programming concerts seems to have become too much a matter of proving one’s ability to tackle the unusual, to expand the audience’s musical experience for their own good.
This tendency could lead to those songs that the older generation has grown up with, when there was nothing shameful about performing well-known songs, becoming the unknown songs before long.
It’s good to reflect that music familiar to us is new to the younger members of the audience, and so a part of every concert should be devoted to such music.

NICOLA HOLT – Song Recital

(with Nicole Chao – piano)

An alternative review by Peter Mechen

Nicola Holt (nee Edgecombe) thoroughly delighted her St.Andrew’s lunchtime audience, delivering a most attractive programme with a singing voice as bright, open and engaging as her platform manner. I had most recently encountered her as the soprano soloist in the Orpheus Choir’s St John Passion performance, in which she sang with a similar openness and clarity, and was pleased to be given the chance to hear her perform in a more intimate and unencumbered acoustic. With pianist Nicole Chao proving a sensitive, responsive partner from the outset, the singer opened her programme with two songs by the English composer Thomas Arne, each a setting from Shakespeare, and capturing in each case the winsome out-of-doors effect that the words suggest. The second song, “Where Daisies pied” from the play “Love’s Labour’s Lost” was notable for some lovely bird-call sequences, whose effect was almost antiphonal in terms of differing colour and dynamics.

Schumann’s song-cycle “Frauenliebe und Leben” (A Woman’s Love and Life) is well-known for several reasons, among them the currently unfashionable sentiments of the poetry concerning women’s dependence on men in stereotyped relationships. Fortunately these politically correct strictures haven’t prevented performances of the work, whose heartfelt fusion in words and music of both ecstasy and tragedy within a human relationship for most people transcend any such societal polemic. This was a lovely performance – Nicola Holt’s voice nicely encompassed the soaring quality of the first song’s lyrical outpourings (Seit ich ihn gesehen), and emphasised the upward-thrusting strength of the following Er, der Herrlichste von allen, though she chose not to attempt the ornamentation at the concluding line of each of the principal theme’s verses, robbing the music of some of its wild ecstasy but compensating with her steadiness. Her word-painting in Ich kann nicht fussen gave an urgent, elfin and volatile flavour to the quickness of the girl’s feelings, the perfect counterweight to her reverential Du Ring an meinem Finger. Nicole Chao’s playing gave sensitively alert support in all but one or two of the more extrovert passages – for example, I thought the piano too reticent in places along with the singer’s ritualistic splendours and joyful energies in Helft mir, ihr Schwestern, though the song’s brief concluding processional postlude was nicely done. The beautiful Süsser Freund moved easefully from its tenderly floated opening line through the central section’s animations and back to its beginning with even more breath-catching rapture; and the contrasting exuberant, almost desperate happiness of An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust made the shock of the final Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan all the more telling. Holt’s singing was here stoic and composed, internalising the tragedy of the beloved’s death, keeping emotion away from the visceral realms, and letting the piano round off the story with its recapitulation of the themes from the work’s opening song. I thought this an extremely fine performance from both artists.

Nicole Chao played Chopin’s Fourth Ballade as a kind of instrumental interlude, though in terms of musical substance and interpretation, the performance kept the musical juices well and truly flowing throughout. Her playing sensitively caught the “song on the water” aspect of the opening pages, though she exhibited surprising volatility (hardly in evidence during the Schumann song-cycle) in the development section, with perhaps too much pedal used at the climaxes on this occasion, the half-empty church acoustic muddying the music’s textures. From the main theme’s canonic treatment onwards, which was nicely shaped, Chao reined in the music more, with clearer control of the swirling figurations; and waited until the stormy coda before once again pulling our her biggest guns, the ending slightly splashy, but very exciting.

Nicola Holt returned for three Schubert lieder, a beautifully differentiated Auf dem Wasser zu singen with subtle intensifications and variations of mood throughout, a heartfelt, slightly effortful, but properly ardent Du Bist die Ruh, (so sublime but so fiendishly difficult!), and to finish, an engagingly joyous Seligkeit, capturing the music’s “schwung” with keen, brightly-focused high notes, and wonderful gaiety throughout.

All in all, a most rewarding , heartfelt and entertaining lunchtime offering from two very fine artists.