Rites of Exultation – The Bach Choir of Wellington

PURCELL – Come, Ye Sons of Art

HANDEL – Coronation Anthems

Pepe Becker (soprano)

Andrea Cochrane and Katherine Hodge (altos)

Kieran Rayner (bass)

The Chiesa Ensemble (Leader, Rebecca Struthers)

The Bach Choir

Stephen Rowley (conductor)

St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 13th December 2009

What a tonic after reading the Sunday newspapers to go to such a concert! Here we had music by two of the greatest of all composers bent on celebrating all that’s gracious, noble and glorious about the idea of royal rule, transcending all the all-too-human preoccupation with aspects of human foible, such as scandal, gossip and intrigue, and setting the monarchy itself upon high with tones whose beauty, energy and magnificence ennoble the state of kings and queens. In each composer’s case the music that was produced spoke for the ordinary person, giving tongue to his or her feelings concerning the pride and righteousness of being a much-loved monarch’s subject.

The concert began with Henry Purcell’s Birthday Ode for Queen Mary of 1694, the last of six odes he wrote for a popular monarch, who was to tragically die of smallpox within eight months of the composer writing this final paean of praise for her – Purcell could not have forseen at the time that he would shortly be writing the Funeral Music for his Queen, or that the same music would be performed less than a year later at his own funeral. The words, whose authorship is doubtful (though some think it could be Nahum Tate, who wrote the libretto for Purcell’s most famous opera “Dido and Aeneas”, and the previous year’s birthday ode for the Queen), evoke the spirits of music to celebrate the queen’s birthday – her fondness for music would presumably have inspired Purcell and his librettist to couch their praises for her in the most metaphorically musical ways, a wide range of  instruments giving tongue to joy, celebration and praise – “Strike the viol, touch the lute, wake the harp, inspire the flute!”

Purcell was able to transcend the somewhat earthbound quality of the verses with energising phrasings and rhythms that lift the commonplace up into the realms of great art: The words “Come, ye sons of art, away, tune all your voices and instruments play, to celebrate this triumphant day” when set by Purcell, become a mellifluously-constructed ode to a friend and patroness of music, immortalising her in the process. Before the verses appear, the composer gives us a full Italian-styled three-part sinfonia, concluding with a grave adagio that serves to highlight the solemnity of the occasion and throw into relief the joyousness of the invocations to Art and Music to follow. Purcell’s librettists for these works were not great poets, apart from Sir Charles Sedley, who wrote the verses for the fourth Ode of 1692, Love’s goddess sure was blind. The satirist Thomas Brown, recognising this, wrote the perceptive lines “For where the author’s scanty words have fail’d / Your Happier Graces, Purcell, have prevail’d”.

The playing of the Chiesa Ensemble, led by Rebecca Struthers, was splendid at the outset – strings and trumpets set the scene with bright, shining tones and energised phrasings that brought the music nicely to life – conductor Stephen Rowley chose tempi that allowed phrases to be savoured by the players, whose momentum was generated by dint of accent and phrasing rather than merely speed. After the solemn adagio alto Andrea Cochrane surprisingly took the pulpit for “Come Ye Sons of Art”, placing her alongside the back rows of the choir – a miscalculation, I thought, as she should have been far further forward (in the front, next to the conductor) and more immediate-sounding. She sang very beautifully, but her invocation to the “Sons of Art” had insufficient power and persuasion, due to her backward placement. Similarly, both she and Katherine Hodge were further disadvantaged in “Sound the Trumpet”, not only backwardly-placed, but distanced from the continuo instruments (Eleanor Carter’s ‘cello and Douglas Mews’ harpsichord) who were providing the rhythmic trajectories of the music with such buoyancy. Both singers sang beautifully, blending and dovetailing their tones nicely, and keeping nicely in touch with their instrumentalists; but both of their rather soft-grained voices needed all the forward projection that was available to them, in order to sound the clarion calls that Purcell surely intended.

Having more brightly-focused and strongly-projected tones, both soprano Pepe Becker and bass Kieran Rayner were able to realise more successfully  the more “public” aspect of the Ode.  Kieran Rayner’s declamations sonorously encompassed all but the highest notes without a hint of strain – the  words “Grant, oh grant, and let it have the honour of a jubilee” in particular were clearly and splendidly hurled forth. And the aria “These are the Sacred Charms” was marked by more mellifluous singing from the bass, a momentary voice-slip towards the end apart.  Pepe Becker’s singing of “Bid the Virtues”, in duet with the oboe, while paying less attention, I thought, to word-painting than to the production of beautiful tones, realised some lovely moments, among them a beautifully-arched “Blessing with returns of prayer, their great defender’s care”. Again, I think the backward placement of the singers robbed the words of some of their expression, rather generalising the solo voices’ effect (not that the poetry was anything to write home about, but even the most banal words can be transformed by settings of genius, as here). Soprano and bass shared the festive splendour of the final verse-settings “Thus Nature, rejoicing” with rich and noble tones from all concerned, the timpani flourishes at the end capping off the celebratory effect in fine style.

Handel’s Coronation Anthems, written for the Coronation of King George II and his Queen Caroline in 1727, have proven among the most durable of his works, used in coronation ceremonies of monarchs since then, and regarded as epitomising the composer’s most public and grandiloquent manner. Of course, the music was written for performing in Westminister Abbey, and as such deals in broad brush-strokes of sound, written for maximum public effect. With a choir of fifty voices and instrumentalists numbering in excess of a hundred and fifty, that first performance must have made a splendid noise! St.Andrew’s in Wellington is certainly no Westminster Abbey, but the effect when the Bach Choir’s voices took up the opening words of “Zadok the Priest’ was scalp-prickling. There was a nice sense of processional about the instrumental introduction, Stephen Rowley’s tempi both here, and in the more vigorous “God Save the King” section which concludes the anthem, I thought perfectly judged to bring out the music’s spacious grandeur, allowing the players to put real point and “girth” in their phrasing.

The second anthem, “Let Thy Hand be Strengthened” saw oboe and strings bring a pleasing variation of colour to the music, the singing nicely “rounded” in effect, not perhaps especially pointed, but entirely lacking any mannerism of emphasis or articulation. The minor-key mood of “Let justice and judgement” was allowed all its deep-hued gravity, unfolding and breathing naturally, while the “Alleluias” at the end had plenty of spring and energy. In the next anthem “My Heart is Inditing” I wanted a bit more “spring” from the voices in their opening passagework, something of the kind that was readily provided by the oboes in similar passages throughout. I liked the sopranos’ emphasis on the word “inditing” in their vocal line, something which energised and personalised the words’ delivery. Again, Stephen Rowley managed a tempo at “Kings daughters” which allowed the phrasings of the music to set the rhythmic trajectory of the whole, and again brought out the loveliness of the soprano voices, an effect that was also noticeable, in tandem with the oboes, at “Upon thy right hand”. With the final “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers”, the brass and timpani again came into their own, as they did in the final anthem “The King Shall Rejoice”. Perhaps the concluding “alleluias” were a shade too fast for the choir’s comfort, the voices striving to keep with the conductor’s beat and with the playing of the orchestra – but the effect overall was of great exhilaration and a marvellous sense of occasion, which is what we got, and was, surely, what the composer intended!

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