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Chorus And Keys – Festival Singers with Organists

By , 12/09/2009

CHORUS AND KEYS – Festival Singers and Wellington Organists

DVORAK – Mass in D Major

Works by PURCELL, SWEELINCK, MATHIAS, MENDELSSOHN and J.C.BACH

Festival Singers

(Rosemary Russell, director)

Soloists: Clarissa Dunn (soprano) / Rosel Labone (m-soprano)

John Beaglehole (tenor) / Kieran Raynor (baritone)

Organists: Paul Rosoman, Jonathan Berkahn, Judy Dumbleton

Church of St.John’s in the City, Willis St., Wellington

Saturday 12th September 2009

This was a concert devised by Wellington organists and the Festival Singers to present music which combined the sounds of voices and organ. Similar concerts with the same forces have been held in the past during the annual “Organ Week” festivals, but 2009 being the 50th Anniversary of the Wellington Organists’ Association, this became a special occasion, celebrated in fine style with performances of a variety of music from different times and places.

I wondered at the very beginning whether the word “birdsong” ought to have been added to the concert’s title, as the first sounds we heard were those of the kakapo, the haunting and evocative notes allowed to resound in the spaces of St.John’s in the City for some seconds before organist Paul Rosoman began his first item, Jan Sweelinck’s attractively melancholic set of variations on a old German tune Mein junges Leben hat ein End. This manuals-only work imparted a charming, chamber-like feeling, though a brilliant trumpet stop invigorated one of the variations excitingly. Voices provided a contrast with the next item, Purcell’s well-known anthem Rejoice in the Lord Always, featuring soloists Rosel Labone and Kieran Rayner, blending their voices characterfully as they exchanged attractive antiphonal episodes with the chorus. Both soloists and chorus made sonorous and strongly-focused contributions throughout, the former at the reprise of “Rejoice”, while the latter produced a stirring impact at their final massed entry.

If the J.C.Bach “Organ Duet” Sonata showed neither Paul Rosoman nor Judy Dumbleton at their best (perhaps through nerves and/or lack of rehearsal time), each made amends with a solo performance afterwards – first, Paul Rosoman gave a powerful reading of Mendelssohn’s Allegro, Choral and Fugue, the imposing toccata-like opening alternating great rhythmic drive and sinuously-wrought chromatic progressions, before relaxing into a major key in a way entirely characteristic of this composer (it would never have done for “Old Bach”, whose music Mendelssohn revered above all other, but whose musical sinews were obviously made of sterner stuff). The subsequent Chorale and Fugue were strongly characterised, with plenty of tension and sharp focus, before the music was triumphantly brought home in splendid D Major. For her part, Judy Dumbleton gave an exhilarating and open-aired reading of Eugene Gigout’s E Major scherzo, with reedy timbres and hunting-horn echoes to the fore, the playing not note-perfect, but with just the right amount of joie de vivre. The trio section particularly delighted us, the rhythmic phrases skipping along and jumping between registers, and managing to get the last saucy word in after the Scherzo’s brassier timbres had returned.

After the interval came the Dvorak Mass in D Major, a work I’d not previously heard, and an absolute charmer. The music began with a “Kyrie” whose lilting, lullaby-like accents built to more stirring utterances, leading to the “Christe” in which soprano Clarissa Dunn beautifully interwove her lines with that of the choir.

Throughout, the energetic triumph of the “Gloria” was splendidly directed by conductor Rosemary Russell, and featured some nice solo work at “Domine Deus”, with Kieran Rayner particularly sonorous at “Qui tollis peccata mundi”. In the “Credo” I liked the deceptively gentle altos-only beginning, with the whole choir bursting in at “Patrem omnipotentem” to great dramatic effect, as were the exchanges between choir and soloists at “Deum de Deum”. More lovely singing from Kieran Rayner, as well as from alto Rosel Labone, brought true mystery and reverence to “Et incarnatus est”, helped by beautifully reedy organ tones from Jonathan Berkahn’s playing. A harsh, confrontational “Crucifixus” was brought off with great strength of purpose, while tenor John Beaglehole supplied plenty of heroic energy in “Et ascendit in caelum”, the choir a shade shaky with the fugal writing at “Et iterum venturus”, but bringing it together well at “Cujus regni”. More good work from altos at “Credo in unam sanctam” and tenors with their “Confiteor unum baptisma” brought us resoundingly to the repeated and majestically-delivered final cries of “Amen!” at the Credo’s end.

The “Sanctus” which followed featured some lovely work in thirds by the women, their high lines leading surely to the celebratory “Hosannas”, and contrasting nicely with the rapt and reverential tones of the “Benedictus”, the organ again reedy and atmospheric, the choir sustaining the tones well (women a little more securely and surely than the men), and relishing the return of the “Hosannas” with glorious and vigorous outpourings of tone. The “Agnus Dei” gave the soloists further chances to shine, the tenor leading the way with nicely lyrical, suppliant petitionings, echoed by the altos and sopranos from the choir, and joined by soprano Clarissa Dunn with some beautifully-floated high notes. As for the concluding “Dona nobis pacem” it was beautifully managed here, the minor-to-major modulation nicely brought off, and the hushed choral entries giving the work an appropriately valedictory feeling at the close.

Not programmed on paper, but included as an item in the concert as a (somewhat specious) “filler” between the 19th and 20th centuries was Britten’s organ piece “Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria”, introduced and played by Jonathan Berkahn. Despite its brevity, the music made a big and imposing overall impression in Jonathan Berkahn’s hands, with majestic tones at the start, spiced by some glorious dissonances, and followed by a nicely processional fugue which explored contrasting bell-like sonorities and different rhythmic patternings through to a gradually receding conclusion. After this, the festive irruptions of joyful sounds occasioned by William Matthais’s setting of Psalm 67 “Let the People Praise Thee, O God” brought the concert to an exuberant conclusion, the Singers enjoying the Walton-like rhythmic syncopations of the writing as much as the celestially floated unisons of the music’s more luminous episodes. A great and celebratory way to end a concert.

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