Cantoris explores the motet literature, from Bach to Rubbra

Cantoris: Motet Perpetuem, directed by Rachel Hyde 

Bach: Lobet den Herrn and Jesu meine Freude; Brahms: O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf, Op 74 No 2; Bruckner: Ave Maria, Op 6, Os justi, Op 10; Poulenc: 4 motets pour le temps de Noël, Op 152; Rubbra: Tenebrae Motets, Op 72, Nocturne 3

St Peter’s church, Willis Street

Saturday 1 May, 7.30pm

It must be about a year since I heard Cantoris, which was one of Wellington’s leading choirs under he direction of Robert Oliver; like most musical bodies it has had its ups and downs since then. Under Robert Oliver the choir gained distinction by presenting complete performances of Handel oratorios; it is no longer possible to excite large audiences with such things, and concerts of late have been more eclectic. In the five years that Rachel Hyde has been in command, Cantoris has largely regained its former standing.

This was eclectic, though it consisted of music called motets.

The motet is not a very precisely defined class of choral composition, generally described as a choral composition to Latin words that are not a part of the Mass, but used in other church offices; its texts are usually from the Bible.

Bach’s six motets, written probably in his early years at Leipzig, are the most famous and provide models for most subsequent so-called motets. That was the theme of the concert; each of the later motets in the programme were directly or indirectly influenced by Bach’s.

So it was interesting that the singing of the two Bach motets was less polished than several of the later ones. That is undoubtedly because they present greater challenges, largely attributable to Bach’s musical erudition and his fascination with the mathematics of music.

I was a minute late and had the charming experience of hearing the choir in full flight as I entered: the urgent sounds of Lobet den Herrn, brisk, supported by clean staccato singing, with organ accompaniment (a debatable addition). Balance among the women’s voices was excellent but the men’s voices were less homogeneous, and there were moments of suspect ensemble. These flaws were most evident in the two Bach motets (in the sixth stanza of Jesu meine Freude the tenors, opening alone, drew attention to their fragility); in the Brahms motet, too, vocal quality was uneven among the tenors.

Bach’s largest and most imposing motet is Jesu meine Freude which demands singing of some dramatic quality because of the varied character of each of the 11 stanzas, that create such an elaborate and satisfying architectural structure.

Brahms modeled his German motet, O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf, on Bach’s, though he did depart from one formal norm of the motet – Latin words, and the complexities of the opening section were handled bravely if not perfectly. The last, ‘Du wollen wir…’ allowed a purer, cleaner sound to emerge, particularly the women’s voices that were quite admirable.

Two of Bruckner’s motets followed, again accompanied by the organ (borrowed from the New Zealand School of Music). Gentler, more submissive than Brahms, they allowed all sections of the choir to be heard to better advantage; I realized that the problems of obtrusive individual male voices was overcome by softer singing: the Ave Maria was gorgeous. Voices blended beautifully in Os Justi too, and there were subtle fluctuations of dynamics.

Poulenc’s four a cappella Christmas motets were charming examples of the composers cheerful piety. Again, the choir’s strengths were more evident than its weaknesses, coping well enough with the testing rhythms, though I found the emphases on certain words rather at odds with the meaning: for example on ‘jacentem’ in the first motet. Striking a sort of news-reader’s tone made Hodie Christus natus est rather interesting.

The Tenebrae motets by Rubbra, to words that to a non-catholic, are shockingly brutal, were not familiar to me, all seemed set to music that dealt succinctly and exactly with the subject, and the choir excelled themselves in the Third Nocturne, handling it with a deliberate, serious tone yet very musically.

It was a worthy revival of music by a gifted but neglected composer, whose music was more familiar when I was young, to end an admirably devised programme.

The concert was a benefit for the restoration of the church’s organ.

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