Cantoris – Simple Song

Cantoris  (Music Director – Rachel Hyde)
Music by Schumann, Ravel, Body,
Brahms, Britten

St Peter’s Church, Willis St.,

Saturday 8th August 2009

As was the case with Cantoris’s previous concert “Amaryllis and Absalom”,  both the venue, the gorgeously-appointed St.Peter’s Church on Willis St, and a beautifully laid-out booklet programme containing commentaries and texts of the song-settings, admirably set the scene for the choir’s most recent exploration of  the choral repertoire, an attractive programme entitled “Simple Song”. Cantoris director Rachel Hyde welcomed us to the concert and talked briefly about each bracket of songs and of some of the things she and the choir were attempting to realise in their performance. The four Schumann works for double choir which opened the programme were a pleasing choice, the singers quickly able to demonstrate their technical skills and expressive range with nice melodic work in thirds, good dynamic control and a living, breathing flexibility of pulse throughout. I particularly enjoyed the second piece Ungewisses Licht, a piece describing a lonely traveller’s journey through the storms of intense privation towards a distant beckoning light, the singers nicely and truly differentiating the major/minor oscillation of “ist es die Liebe, is es der Tod?” at the end.

Ravel’s gorgeous Trois Chansons are settings of texts by the composer, his only work for unaccompanied choir. The women’s voices tended to overshadow the men’s throughout, carrying the argument, except for the tenor line in the second song Trois beaux oiseaux, which was nicely focused and sensitively delivered. Again in the third song, the riotous Ronde, the women’s voices nicely captured the fantastic character of the setting, the voices relishing the rhythmic and colouristic possibilities given by the grotesque made-up names of the creatures of the Ormonde Woods. Still more “invented” language was brought into play by Jack Body, with his Five Lullabies 1988-89, music whose inspiration stemmed from the composer’s encounters with various exotic cultures, the sounds of both language and music being brought into play. Body makes the point that lullabies might not be always sung for the purpose of sleep; and while several of the settings did produce a mesmeric effect, the fourth sounded more like a “work-song”, energetic and invigorating. The fifth setting returned our sensibilities to the world of dreams, using the Filipino word “calumbaya”, the music filled with haunting, Sibelius-like held notes, as if sounding from a magical island, the divided choirs setting a beautifully-floated sonic backdrop around a more energetic striving figuration in the foreground, creating something altogether rich and strange – very nice.

Brahms used selections from a particularly rich vein of German Marian poetry, called thus after Mary, the mother of Jesus, and also Mary Magdalene, who was one of Jesus’s followers – the poetry uniquely combines a folk tradition with religious symbolism, a point made by Rachel Hyde when stressing the importance of language and its clarity and colour in performance. The songs made a telling contrast after the attractive astringencies of Jack Body’s music, the choir making the most of its storytelling opportunities with progressions such as the angel’s annunciation to Mary of her impending motherhood in the opening song Der englische Gruß. Perhaps not surprisingly, parts of the music have a Mahlerian melancholy, the opening of  the second Marias Kirchgang having something of the fatalistic tread of Mahler’s Lieder und Gesänge, as does the sixth Magdalena, relating the Magdalene’s discovery of Christ’s empty tomb, music with “haunted” harmonies and dynamics. Strong, atmospheric singing throughout.

Benjamin Britten’s Five Flower Songs gave us the lightness and buoyancy we needed at the concert’s end, the voices relishing the piquant skills of the composer’s varied responses, from the opening strongly-focused lines of Daffodils, through the tricky fugalities and finely-wrought dying fall of Four Sweet Months and the jagged, droll-sounding Marsh Flowers, to the delicately-etched harmonies of Evening Primrose, with its sun-drenched death-knell at the end. And with the most engaging syncopations and antiphonal cross-stitchings of the saucy Ballad of Green Broom to finish, the choir was able to conclude its concert with a spring and a smile and an exhalation of pure pleasure, the acclaim of its audience at the end richly deserved.

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